She's Back

JonBenét brings out the media's worst -- again.

There was never any danger of the Rocky Mountain News underplaying the August 16 arrest of alleged child-porn fan John Mark Karr in the 1996 slaying of JonBenét Ramsey. After all, the paper's previous coverage of this tragic episode had exhibited all the quiet subtlety of Celine Dion at a wineglass-shattering contest. But somehow, the tabloid's August 17 front page still managed to startle thanks to an enormous color head-and-shoulders shot of JonBenét looking like a miniature bride in a frilly white dress, pre-Raphaelite curls, elaborate makeup, smoochy red lipstick and a come-hither expression she didn't grow old enough to understand. If Karr hadn't been in custody in Thailand, he might have been accused of another crime: serving as the Rocky's art director for the day.

Inside, the Rocky outlined Karr's capture and the role played by CU-Boulder journalism professor Michael Tracey, who conducted a lengthy e-mail correspondence with the alleged murderer before contacting the authorities. (Somehow, the paper neglected to mention that Tracey was once on the Rocky's payroll; he wrote the worst media column since the invention of moveable type for the tabloid during parts of 2003 and 2004.) Even Lisa Ryckman, a former Ramsey specialist turned fitness editor, got into the act. Ryckman's collection of vindicatory comments from friends of Patsy Ramsey, JonBenét's mother, was her first article in ages that didn't run alongside pictures of her wearing Danskin.

Still, perhaps the most telling moment in the Rocky's blizzard of JonBenét ballyhoo was its editorial on the topic, which juxtaposed warnings against rushing to judgment (yeah, sure) with a nyaah-nyaah-nyaah aimed at those who felt the paper had bent over for the Ramseys back in the day. "The record will show that this newspaper attempted to explore all possible explanations for the murder, including the theory of outside intruder," the editorial's author wrote. "As a result of those efforts, the paper was contemptuously dubbed 'The Ramsey Mountain News' by one fierce media critic of the family. This fellow also targeted a News reporter for regular on-air ridicule."

Michael Tracey willingly faces the media masses.
Michael Roberts
Michael Tracey willingly faces the media masses.

By the way, the "critic" was KHOW's Peter Boyles, and the "News reporter" was Ryckman, who wrote in a 2000 letter to Westword that she refused to appear on an episode of Geraldo Rivera's show with Boyles "out of sheer disgust." Betcha that deflated Rivera's ego. Usually people who dodge Geraldo's program do so because they're sickened by him.

These days, Boyles continues to earn revulsion, but for a different reason. Since the Karr bust, he's been bombarded by angry calls and e-mails demanding that he apologize for unfairly persecuting Patsy, yet he's refused to do so thus far; he says the Karr confession "doesn't add up." His fellow yakkers may agree, but most took a safer path -- at least in the beginning. KHOW's Craig Silverman initially offered an I'm-sorry for using "innuendo" against Patsy and her husband, John, while Silverman's partner, Dan Caplis, pussyfooted around previous statements about Patsy's possible complicity by arguing that he never definitively said she was guilty. But as more doubts began creeping in, their skepticism increased, along with that of many other observers, who began probing every clue anew. During the afternoon drive on August 16, for instance, KOA's April Zesbaugh rapped about "contusions" on JonBenét's vagina and the question about whether the young victim had been "penetrated." No word on how many crashes her conversation caused.

In the meantime, the cable networks jumped back into the JonBenét game with unbridled enthusiasm despite the fact that there are a few other important things going on in the world -- like the fragile ceasefire in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict and a little war in Iraq. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann devoted half of his program to JonBenét on August 16, with a highlight being legal commentator Dan Abrams's memory of how longtime Ramsey attorney Lin Wood used to scream at him. That same night, Fox News's Greta Van Susteren and Sean Hannity, Headline News's Nancy Grace, CNN's Tom Foreman (subbing for Anderson Cooper) and MSNBC's Joe Scarborough were just as engaged in Karr chases, if not more so, making Fox News's Bill O'Reilly's decision to limit JonBenét rehashes to a single segment seem downright brave. And CNN's Larry King? He went ahead with a Jon Bon Jovi interview, maybe because channel surfers might have mistaken the on-screen label "Jon Bon" for "JonBenét." That's livin' on a prayer, Larry.

This hubbub was mere prelude for an August 17 press conference featuring Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy at which national orgs like Entertainment Tonight and The Insider were joined by an overflow of locals acting as if they'd been invited to a family reunion. Take Channel 31's Sari Padorr, who greeted Channel 9's Paula Woodward with a big hug and the line "How are you, beautiful girl?"

CU prof Tracey was on hand, too, showboating shamelessly for the assembled scribes and shutterbugs -- and they undoubtedly appreciated his presence, since Lacy was much less talkative. After stepping to the podium and having photographers demand that she remove a water bottle placed in front of her face, Lacy talked for ten minutes about how she couldn't talk about much of anything. Along the way, she hinted that Karr had been arrested before the investigation was complete -- an ominous implication if ever there was one. But otherwise, her prepared address was dominated by thank-yous to various law enforcers in Boulder and Bangkok; it was like a long-winded Oscar acceptance speech, with no band to play her off stage. Lacy then responded to a series of questions with increasingly ludicrous no-comments. Pretty much the only query she answered concerned Karr's reaction upon his arrest. With palpable relief, she said, "I actually don't know what his reaction was."

The rest of us are similarly in the dark about the Ramsey melodrama as a whole. Karr could be JonBenét's assassin or a false confessor as desperate for attention as Tracey appeared to be -- and at present, either prospect seems equally plausible. But whichever way the facts turn, count on the Rocky and just about every other mainstream news purveyor to trot out flirty photos and video of the littlest Ramsey every chance they get.

If JonBenét had been resting in peace before this, she's not doing so now.

Air American: These days, comedian/author Al Franken is pouring his energy into collecting cash for Democratic candidates; to learn more about his appearance at an August 24 fundraiser, see page 31. But he remains at the helm of a midday show on Air America, heard locally on AM-760 -- and he regards the survival of the program, and the network it's on, as a significant achievement. "If you'd said three years ago, 'You're going to be on eighty-some stations around the country by 2006,' I would have taken that," he maintains.

Nevertheless, Air America faces no shortage of challenges. AM-760 may be known as "Boulder's Progressive Talk," but its ratings haven't progressed much; they're down from this quarter last year. And things are tougher in some other markets. Although Franken's show is heard in Atlanta, the rest of the Air America slate was recently deep-sixed -- and in New York and Cincinnati, the net had to switch stations. Some reports insist that lower-than-anticipated audience numbers prompted the last two swaps, which Franken disputes in relation to New York and acknowledges in Cincy. But he believes any suggestion that Air America is about to collapse is wishful right-wing thinking.

"Bill O'Reilly goes on his show and says we'll be off the air in a couple of months -- and he started saying that when we had four stations," Franken asserts. "And then he said it when we had eight, and twelve, and twenty and thirty. He says it all the time, but we're still here." One reason is Air America's advertiser-friendly demographics; according to Franken, they skew younger than O'Reilly's in New York by two decades.

Another plus, Franken feels, is that he's improving as a host. "I think I know how to prepare better. I'm fairly good at reading a guest in terms of will they go a certain place or won't they. And I think I know when to let my guest speak and not interrupt them -- even if I have a joke."

That way, he can have the last laugh.

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