Two Days in the Death of JonBenét

A journal of the media madness sparked by the JonBenét grand jury.

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 12

6:20 a.m.: Flop -- copies of the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News hit the driveway. The Post gives little indication that the investigation into the 1996 murder of six-year-old Boulderite JonBenét Ramsey is on the cusp of a climax. Even though a grand jury appointed to look into the case is meeting this very day amid rumors that it's about to make a decision about further action (or inaction), the story isn't on the front page; apparently editors feel that "Solar System May Have Big 10th Planet" is a more pressing matter to locals. And while a JonBenét article ("Expert Reviewed Ramsey File") appears on the opener of the paper's B section, the piece doesn't mention that the grand jury is assembling until paragraph six. Predictably, the News takes a spicier approach, declaring on its cover, "Anticipation Mounts in JonBenét Inquiry: Media Flood Boulder for Jury's Finding." In other words, people outside the Denver-Boulder area are noticing us! Hooray!

7:02 a.m.: Both the Today show and Good Morning America have JonBenét reports at or near the top of their respective newscasts. On GMA, correspondent Don Dahler, obviously going for that how-could-it-happen-here? irony, does his standup posed in front of a scenic Boulder creek with a quaint bridge in the background. Unfortunately, it's so dark that he looks as if he's at an all-night miniature golf course whose owners didn't pay the light bill.

8:20 a.m.: Both KOA and KHOW radio are live from the Boulder County Justice Center, where the grand jury is expected to gather inside of the hour. On KOA, hosts Steve Kelly and April Zesbaugh quiz NBC/CNBC/MSNBC reporter Dan Abrams; he suggests that JonBenét's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, who've been described as being "under an umbrella of suspicion" so often that they might consider endorsing parasols, flew from their Atlanta home to Colorado in order to avoid a "spectacle arrest." Meanwhile, on KHOW, host and supreme Ramsey basher Peter Boyles reminisces with Steffan Tubbs, a onetime KOA journalist gone national who's returned for the day's festivities, before Boyles mentions that he'll be discussing JonBenét on his 7 Speakout feature on Channel 7 in a couple of hours and has also been asked to appear on MSNBC and CNBC later in the day. "Geraldo's coming to town today," he adds, with a touch of awe in his voice.

1:05 p.m.: Judging by local and national television coverage, the uncounted dozens of reporters waiting outside the Justice Center have absolutely nothing to do. The networks' online services generally reflect this stasis; the most www.cnn.com can offer bored ghouls is a link to www.insidedenver.com, a News archive of a mere fifteen JonBenét-oriented stories published since September 14. But MSNBC (at www.msnbc.com) gives surfers a handful of more interactive features to distract themselves with until something happens. Specifically, visitors to the page headed "Ramsey Jury Said to Be Near Decision" can listen to sound bites from Abrams and Lawrence Schiller, author of the JonBenét book Perfect Murder, Perfect Town or explore a Ramsey timeline. And if that's not exciting enough, there's also "APB's look at 16 clues left at Ramsey house." One click, and the curious are whisked to www.abpnews.com and a graphic labeled "JonBenét Ramsey: House of Clues" that includes a complete floorplan of the building where the murder took place. Sample exhibits: "No. 16: A Stun Gun?" "No. 10: Pineapple Chunks" and, inevitably, "No. 1: The Corpse." Fun for the whole family.

3:50 p.m.: As if on cue, a piece of guerrilla art by JonBenét fringe figure J.T. Colfax appears on a pole outside Westword's offices. "It's Ramsey O'Clock" screams an Edvard Munch-inspired sketch. "The end is near."

4:01 p.m.: In low-key fashion, KOA correspondent Jerry Bell reveals that the grand jurors have just left for the day, adding that representatives of Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter's office have promised to give the press a "four-hour warning" before making any statements -- an apparent courtesy to any reporters who've been spending their downtime in bars. Far more excitable is KHOW's Boyles, who phones in a breathless update to afternoon drive-time jock Reggie Rivers. After Boyles finishes gushing about the huge media contingent, which he says is more than comparable to that at either the Oklahoma City bombing trial or the Columbine shooting, Rivers bids him farewell and then admits that he's not one of "those Ramsey people" who hang on every development of the investigation; "I got Ramsey-ed out about two months after it happened," he says. Then, following a couple of weak attempts to speak about the case (he says the jurors may render a "verdict," not deliver an indictment), Rivers returns to talking about his previous subject -- the estimate that there are now six billion people on earth. Yeah, and most of them seem to be in Boulder right now.

5-10:30 p.m.: The evening blitz starts. Channels 7 and 9 lead with JonBenét, but not with the vigor demonstrated by Channel 4, which all but ignores every other news story for the next hour; included are rehashes of "the case against Patsy" and "the intruder theory," as well as mini-bios of such investigation figures as ex-Boulder cop/mystical eye-roller Linda Arndt and Lou Smit, the Bible-thumping Colorado Springs homicide detective who believes the Ramseys are innocent. On MSNBC, the omnipresent Abrams gives way to John Gibson, among the most annoying men on the planet, and a who's who of Ramsey pundits: former Denver district attorney Norm Early, tightly wired local lawyer Larry Pozner, powerhouse Washington-based gabber Joe diGenova and, of course, Schiller and Boyles. Afterward, Gibson hobnobs with David Gregory, host of MSNBC's Crosstalk, which focused on JonBenét earlier in the day, while CNBC spotlights Geraldo Rivera talking with, yes, Dan Abrams and, yes, Peter Boyles. The graphics are different, but the talking heads remain the same.

Later in the evening, Larry King weighs in on JonBenét, as does CNN's Burden of Proof program and the Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes, whose guests include New York-based lawyer/gadfly Darnay Hoffman and, mmm-hmm, Peter Boyles. The various NBC cable properties keep the redundancies coming, too, despite the dearth of any new information to report. Seldom has so much been said about so little.

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 13

6:23 a.m.: Flop -- here come the Post and the News again. This time, the Post deigns to acknowledge the JonBenét carnival up front, but the headline of its page-one story, "Media's Vigil Continues in JonBenét Jury Probe," makes it sound as if the press were practicing a new religion -- which might not be far off. The piece runs below the fold, beneath not one, but two photos of basketballer Wilt Chamberlain, who died the previous day. But the Rocky exhibits no such shyness, relegating Wilt the Stilt to the lower left-hand corner under a big photo of a gaggle of camera operators outside the Justice Center. Over it are the words "Anxious Wait for JonBenét Grand Jury's Decision." God, the suspense is incredible!

Over on Channel 9, reporter Lori Hirosa reports that several TV crew members are sleeping in their vans -- scoopage! But very much awake is the forty-something Pennsylvania mother who uses the pseudonym Mrs. Brady on her nationally recognized Ramsey-centric Web page, at www.joshua-7.com/mrsbrady. Previously profiled in these pages ("The Mom Squad," September 10, 1998), Mrs. Brady has an update online by 6:30 a.m. complete with a staggeringly lengthy roundup of JonBenét stuff from Tuesday introduced by the comment, "Tick, tick, tick...hurry up and wait. Maybe today?"

8:26 a.m.: The media folks in Boulder have grown so bored that they're beginning to interview each other. On KOA, Michael Tracey, the credibility-challenged University of Colorado journalism prof behind the "documentary" The Case of JonBenét: The Media Versus the Ramseys, is followed to the microphone by Burden of Proof's Greta Van Susteren and Carol McKinley, who managed to parlay her time working the Ramsey beat for KOA into an on-camera gig for Fox News; McKinley says authorities are threatening to charge reporters who pester grand jurors or venture into the so-called media-free zone. The big names joining Boyles on KHOW this morning are Richard Gooding, credited with breaking the story about Newt Gingrich's mistress, and ABC's Jeffrey Toobin, who got his first significant face time during the O.J. Simpson trial. Toobin says that Boyles asked him the day before if anyone would shed a tear were a bomb to destroy the Justice Center media encampment. This "haunting question," he goes on, had a lot to do with him not sleeping well the previous night.

3:30-4:59 p.m.: Hours of time-wasting end when the grand jurors depart and Boulder district attorney reps hint that some kind of statement will be coming shortly. Thirty minutes later, Channel 7 block of wood Steve Saunders asks Craig Silverman, once a Denver prosecutor, to read the tea leaves. Silverman says that the grand jurors "didn't look like a happy group" when they exited (he bases this opinion on their refusal to make eye contact with him) and hints that evidence was removed from the Justice Center and a paper shredder was brought inside. Saunders takes all this in before warning, "We don't want to make too much of what we don't know right now." There's some good advice.

Minutes later, the media begins reporting that Alex Hunter will be making "an announcement of significance" at 5 p.m. On KHOW, host Rivers promises that Peter Boyles will be on the air immediately after Hunter's remarks -- as if anyone could stop him. Already in position on Fox News is Darnay Hoffman, who notes, quite accurately, that most Boulderites haven't been as fixated on the case as have people elsewhere in the country. "Boulder, I think, is sick of this," he says. He also believes that the grand jurors looked happy, not sad. Guess he and Silverman will have to duke it out over that.

5 p.m.: Hunter walks toward the press throng with Channel 4 reporter Brian Maass alongside him babbling banalities into a cell phone: "He's wearing a gray, pin-striped suit," Maass says, as if no one can see Hunter but him. The district attorney eventually ditches Maass at the speaker's platform and drops the bombshell that's not really a bombshell: The grand jury won't be coming back, and no one will be indicted. Gasp.

5:09-10:30 p.m.: The analysis frenzy begins. CNN's Van Susteren isn't surprised. Fox News's McKinley quotes Henry Lee, a forensic expert with O.J. credentials whom Hunter consulted, as saying, "They're beating a dead horse" and claims that the case at this point "is like the sound of one hand clapping." The Post's Chuck Green and attorney Pozner take opposite sides on MSNBC, where John Gibson declares that the extravaganza is ending "with a whimper, not a bang" -- a phrase used moments later on Channel 4 by Mimi Wesson, a CU law professor. On Channel 7, expert Silverman offers, "What we have here is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing," while Adams County District Attorney Bob Grant gives things a more positive spin: "Everyone involved will continue to try and make this a prosecutable case in court." Then Boyles, who's introduced as a guy whose radio program is "all JonBenét all the time," turns up on Fox News; "I'm sad," he says sadly. "It may be a sad day for American justice." Not to mention how sad it is for people who've grown accustomed to being on national cable shows every night.

As the hours wear on, the air seems to go out of the JonBenét balloon. While Channel 4 pounds the story to a pulp, even pre-empting Dan Rather's national news broadcast, Channels 7 and 9 make room for weather and sports before handing the baton to the network. (NBC leads with the Ramsey grand jury; ABC, though, figures that America is more interested in hearing that the Philip Morris company has at last acknowledged that tobacco isn't a health food.) Likewise, Fox News's Hannity & Colmes spends just half of its hour on JonBenét (spotlighted yakkers: Silverman and self-proclaimed black avenger Ken Hamblin), leaving much of the overkill to the various NBC stations: MSNBC and CNBC keep the post-mortems pumping, and the main network dishes out what might be the 300th Datelineon the topic. Still, it's hard to top Larry King Live. The program kicks off with CNN staffer Valerie Voss, a Ramsey pal who got to know them in a Bible-study class, disclosing that John and Patsy held hands and fell to their knees in prayer during Hunter's mini-speech. This is followed by a virtual O.J. dream-team reunion, with Henry Lee joining attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Bob Shapiro. But they more or less agree that without a confession or the discovery of some previously unknown evidence, the case is all but over. The light is gone from Geraldo's eyes, too; as he decries the injustice of it all, he seems to be mentally packing up and moving on. That's also the message on Channel 2. While Ernie Bjorkman introduces the story on the outlet's 9 p.m. broadcast, the two words hanging over his left shoulder are "The End?"

In the days that follow, the mainstream press tries its best to give the story mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Still, the local headlines have a great deal of finality about them: An extra edition of the Boulder Daily Camera printed the afternoon of the 13th hollers "STUMPED," the Thursday, October 14, News shouts "No Charges," and the Post mates "No Indictment" with the melodramatic Chuck Green column banner "So Now a Killer Walks." But much is made of a bizarre Alex Hunter news conference on Thursday, in part because he allows that there may be as many as "three or four" people involved in JonBenét's death before attempting to eat these words ("I take that back"). In response to a question about the press coverage, he confesses, "I don't have much skin left at this particular time, and it feels funny walking around without skin."

Governor Bill Owens's pledge to consider appointing a special prosecutor in the case, made first on October 13 and reiterated the next morning on Today, Good Morning America and CBS This Morning (and the same afternoon at yet another news conference about the appointment of an advisory team) indicates that his duty may be more than skin deep; he's the main reason the story still has a pulse, albeit a weak one. But shortly thereafter, the satellite vans drive away and the network correspondents head off to the next global hot spot, fully believing that the mystery is returning to the tabloids that have come to know and love it. (In an October 15 JonBenét analysis from NewsWatch, at www.newswatch.org, writers J. Robert Lichter and Jeremy Torobin say the Ramsey matter was "on the cover of one or more tabloid newspapers for over 50 straight weeks," supplementing more than 300 reports aired by Hard Copy, Inside Edition, Extra! and other programs.) The Ramseys don't entirely vanish from the mainstream -- Dateline goes back to the JonBenét well on October 17 -- and they'll certainly pop up again when Owens makes his final determination, disgruntled ex-Boulder police investigator Steve Thomas's forthcoming book hits stores or the CBS mini-series version of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town airs. A confession would do the trick as well.

In the meantime, rest a little easier. Because according to lawyer Scott Robinson, speaking on Channel 9's late broadcast on October 13, the investigation "is about as dead as JonBenét." And the exploitation of it isn't feeling much better.


On October 14, a Rocky Mountain Newspiece exulted: "News Reports Record Circulation Growth," stating that for the six-month period ending September 30, the number of papers going out the door on weekdays jumped 19.3 percent, with a 16.5 percent gain on Sundays. These figures are preliminary -- they're based on the News's analysis of totals submitted to the Illinois-based Audit Bureau of Circulation, which won't make things official until November 8. Furthermore, such gains haven't come cheap: In a press release put out last week, the News's parent company, E.W. Scripps, blamed an 8.8 percent decline in the circulation revenues of its newspaper properties on "the continuing initiatives to increase share in the Denver market." But whereas the Post has been editorially silent about its performance -- fueling speculation that it's been disastrous -- the News is trumpeting its achievements in double-truck ads that bellow, "Our extraordinary circulation growth is the largest in Colorado history."

If that proves to be the case, it may be because the News is better than any other area media organ at simultaneously taking the high and the low road. Consider the October 17 issue, which featured three editorials critical of media overkill in cases like JonBenét and Columbine even as it spotlighted yet another Columbine roundup -- a Kim Franke-Folstad column dominated by a letter to deceased shooting victim Kelly Fleming from her mom -- and oodles of Ramsey coverage hyped on the cover by the headline "JonBenét's Dad to Hunt Killer." Coming soon on the WB: John Ramsey and O.J. Simpson, Private Eyes, in which the pair, between golf games, search the planet for bad guys.

In other news, the situation involving the purchase of AMFM by Clear Channel, which affects a whopping fourteen radio stations in Denver-Boulder, has gotten a teensy bit more clear. On October 8, AMFM execs including Bob Visotcky, the onetime head of the Denver cluster who was recently transferred to Los Angeles, informed employees at Alice, the Peak, KOOL 105, Jammin' Oldies, KIMN and KVOD that the outlets would all be sold because of an obscure FCC regulation preventing a corporation that already owns eight stations in a given market (which Clear Channel does in Denver) from buying more and then cherry-picking the best of the batch. No one is certain what this move will portend (check www.radiodigest.com for some intriguing guesses), but the never-shy Visotcky, reached in L.A., says, "Whoever gets those stations will be truly proud, because they're teed up for an unbelievable year." Fore.

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