By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
In late 1996, just days after their six-year-old daughter JonBenét was found murdered in their Boulder home, John and Patsy Ramsey hired Pat Korten of Rowan & Blewitt, a Washington, D.C.-based firm adept at crisis management -- a specialty perfectly appropriate for the situation in which the Ramseys found themselves. But during the three months or so that Korten oversaw the couple's dealings with the media, their predicament only worsened. By the end of Korten's time in the Ramseys' employ, JonBenét's murder was arguably the most feverishly watched news story of the year, with the vast majority of those addicted to the spectacle certain that either Mom or Dad (or maybe both) had fitted that famous garrote around their little princess's neck. Moreover, Korten found that getting coverage about alternate hypotheses was about as easy as convincing George W. Bush to sign up as Al Gore's running mate.
"We spent a lot of time trying to persuade the hundreds of reporters assigned to the case that the so-called intruder theory was the only legitimate way of looking at this," he says. "But the reporters, and the police, persisted in focusing on the family to the exclusion of everything else."
Three years later, it's a far different story. While lots of folks continue to believe that John, Patsy or some combination thereof was responsible for putting JonBenét in an Atlanta grave, the media in general is finally letting the Ramseys have their way. Even the most impassioned naysayers would have to admit that the marketing campaign surrounding their book about the case -- The Death of Innocence: The Untold Story of JonBenét's Murder and How Its Exploitation Compromised the Pursuit of Truth, officially released to bookstores on March 17 -- has been absolutely brilliant, building for weeks before exploding in a publicity supernova of high-profile interviews with ABC's Barbara Walters and NBC's Katie Couric, the brightest luminaries in today's infotainment galaxy. Moreover, the aforementioned intruder theory has gotten more ink than ever before, thanks to the carefully coordinated efforts of retired detective Lou Smit, to whose ruminations Newsweek recently devoted untold barrels of ink.
Justice may be taking it in the shorts, but from a PR standpoint, it's been a beautiful thing to watch, particularly for Korten. Although his attempts to get the Ramseys what he regarded as a fair shake may have struck outsiders as shaky indeed, he makes it clear that what John and Patsy are doing right now could have been done a very long time ago. "I first met with Barbara Walters in January of 1997, and I was prepared to schedule something with her then and there," he notes. "Based on the limited amount of time I've spent analyzing it lately, they're not only doing exactly what I would have done under the circumstances, but what I did do."
According to Korten, the press's Ramsey flip-flop has been "a logical progression rather than some sudden event," and there's plenty of evidence to support this supposition. When a Boulder grand jury declined to indict either of the Ramseys for offing their youngest ("Two Days in the Death of JonBenét," October 21, 1999), network finger-pointers such as Geraldo Rivera and local brethren like KHOW's Peter Boyles and the Denver Post's Chuck Green were robbed of their news hook, forcing them to finally, blessedly (and, as it turned out, temporarily) move on to other topics.
In addition, a lot of the coverage leading up to the grand-jury anticlimax left the Ramseys' accusers looking guilty of careerism, obsessiveness and, on occasion, outright insanity. Witness the eye-rolling, slack-jawed former Boulder cop Linda Arndt, who, during her five-part interview with Good Morning America's Elizabeth Vargas, came across like someone who spends most of her days compulsively dialing the Psychic Hotline. Somewhere, Dionne Warwick is smiling.
Then came the movies, cranked out especially for sweeps, the February TV-ratings period. Fox's Getting Away With Murder: The JonBenét Ramsey Story was so bereft of ideas that producers could only wring an hour's worth of creepiness out of it; soap-opera fans may have gotten a jolt out of seeing Judi Evans, a vet of Guiding Light and other daytimers, imitating Patsy wearing what appeared to be either the world's worst wig or the carcass of a dead beaver, but they were the only ones. Yet its badness was so complete that some viewers may actually have felt sorry for the Ramseys after watching it. As for Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, author Lawrence Schiller's TV adaptation of his own best-seller about the killing, it was purposefully inconclusive, opening the door to the prospect that someone other than the Ramseys might have slain JonBenét. Especially helpful in this regard was the star power of Kris Kristofferson, who played Lou Smit, even though he may look less like the balding detective than anyone other than Gary Coleman.
Onetime consultant Korten feels that the Ramseys benefited from the production: "Larry Schiller's book was pretty fair and allowed for other possibilities, and I thought the movie did, too," he says.
By coming forward when he did, Smit allowed news operations to juxtapose newsy revelations (both the Post and the Rocky Mountain News ran hefty stories about lame duck Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter's attempts to prevent Smit from testifying before the grand jury) with common hype (case in point: the News's item about the Ramseys' manuscript being placed under armed guard to prevent leaks). As a result, newspapers and magazines were filled with anticipatory, content-free Ramsey items for more than a week leading up to the pair's March 17 appearance on ABC's 20/20 opposite Walters, the "journalist" most likely to cast them in a positive light -- which was precisely what she did.