It's all over but the blaming -- and while the blaming could drag out for a long, long time, we should all be grateful that John Mark Karr's role in the seemingly endless JonBenét Ramsey saga was mercifully brief. Already, many of the cable-news programs delving into Karr's background were starting to resemble remakes of Deliverance. There were videos of the younger Karr wearing a full-on Billy Ray Cyrus mullet. There were interviews with the woman he wed when she was just thirteen. There was even an MSNBC interview with a Karr family babysitter who, when photographed in shadow, sorta looked like Ned Beatty. The only things missing were dueling banjos.
Now, however, Karr is drifting off center stage and is bound for Sonoma County, California, where authorities decided to try him on a handful of child-porn-related misdemeanors rather than allow Boulder to simply set him free. How close this last prospect came to happening remains unclear, but at an August 29 news conference, Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy stressed that the community wouldn't have been endangered had Sonoma decided to forget about Karr's past transgressions. "There was a safety plan in place," she said, then added, in an all-too-familiar way, "I cannot discuss it, for legal reasons." Whatever that plan might have been, Sonoma's move means the media won't have to stake out the Ramseys' old house, waiting for a late-night visit from a certain disturbing perv who suddenly has a lot of time on his hands.
Then again, news organizations might not have bothered wasting those kinds of resources on a guy no longer under anyone's umbrella of suspicion. Channels 9 and 4 devoted lots of time to the Karr conundrum before the August 28 announcement that his DNA didn't match the specimen found on JonBenét's underwear -- or "panties," as KHOW commentator Craig Silverman insists on referring to them. But rather than show Lacy's latest meet-the-press extravaganza live, the stations relegated coverage to their websites so that they could devote their airwaves to more important programming: Channel 9 broadcast Colorado & Company, a show in which hosts Denise Plante and Mark McIntosh pimp firms that have paid for the privilege, and Channel 4 offered The Price Is Right. (Sorry, Mr. Karr, but if you didn't kill JonBenét, you're gonna be preempted by Plinko.) As for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, they were carrying President George W. Bush's speech about the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina as Lacy's mea culpas were passing the one-hour mark, bound for ninety minutes plus.
Boulder DA Mary Lacy
Guess Bush's rationalizations were deemed more newsworthy than Lacy's -- yet those who skipped her address entirely missed a memorably comedic highpoint. Near the start of her talk, a fire alarm went off, causing the DA to jump in her chair as if she'd just been goosed by a cattle prod. "I suspect we'll have to leave," she nattered, but when none of the underlings on either side of her budged, she stayed in place, too. After sitting awkwardly for another moment or two, Lacy turned to the assembled reporters, the alarm still whooping, and said, "We had nothing to do with this."
A perfect metaphor for the thirteen days since Karr was first taken into custody? Almost. Even better was a photo in the August 29 Rocky Mountain News showing Karr inside a vehicle as MSNBC's Rita Cosby pressed against the glass, looking like a bloodthirsty zombie in a George Romero movie. It was a tossup which of them was more frightening.
The Rocky, of course, was in need of some redemption. After Karr's capture, the paper's reporting focused on how Lacy and her minions "cracked the case," as a subhead on the August 17 cover shouted. Indeed, reporter Charlie Brennan's main article that day began with the line "The decade-long search for JonBenét Ramsey's killer came to a startling end in Thailand on Wednesday" -- a sentence far less accurate than Shaquille O'Neal's free-throw shooting. Moreover, an editorial in the same edition suggested that the arrest undermined critics who'd accused the Rocky of sucking up to JonBenét's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, back in the day. In reality, the Karr bust did no such thing, but the folks at the Rocky continued to pretend otherwise by cranking out weak stories about handwriting experts and theories about what the "S.B.T.C." inscription on the original ransom note stood for. My money's on "Shouldn't Believe the Confession."
Granted, plenty of TV talking heads made the same tactical error as the Rocky, and when the DNA results broke, few pundits were willing to admit it. On the August 28 episode of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, Joe Scarborough, in Mississippi on the eve of the Katrina anniversary, devoted a sizable chunk of his show to a debate between commentators Wendy Murphy and Jeralyn Merritt on the question of whether Lacy is "an idiot." (No conclusions were reached.) The "experts" who dished that evening with MSNBC's Cosby, CNN's Anderson Cooper, Fox News's Greta Van Susteren and her colleague Sean Hannity (with O.J. Simpson investigation vet Mark Fuhrman in tow) largely acted as if they'd known Karr was a kook all along, but neglected to censure themselves for lavishing so much attention on an obvious nutball. Not so comedian Bill Maher. Speaking with CNN's Larry King, Maher said ratings-hungry execs were desperate for "any excuse to show footage of [JonBenét] prancing around in a cowboy outfit like a little whore."
Fortunately, that excuse is losing its juice. Expect a few more flurries of pageant footage and overheated rhetoric in the next several weeks, with more spikes in JonBenét-related activity as Karr works his way through the legal system. Attempts by KHOW's Silverman and Dan Caplis to boost a recall campaign aimed at Lacy could also generate headlines. Otherwise, it'll take another arrest to reconstitute the frenzy we've just survived, and even though Lacy says the people in her office will keep searching for JonBenét's murderer, she must feel the media is better equipped to do the job. During her press conference, she said, "You guys have a lot more databases and resources to check on someone than we do."
And if they don't step up to the plate, we'll all know who to blame.
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The great escape: Reporters tend to look askance at colleagues who decide to chuck their profession for better-paying gigs in public relations -- but truth be told, many gripers would do the same thing if given the chance. That's why loads o' journalists are among those sold on www.prjobslist.com, a local service with a rising reputation and an unlikely backstory.
The man behind the site is Andrew Hudson, who served as the mouthpiece for former Denver mayor Wellington Webb. In this capacity, he built an impressive e-mail list of movers, shakers and scribes, and often forwarded word of PR-job openings to them. After Webb left office, Hudson was in the employment-seeking mode, too, and the experience of searching for and finally landing a position at Frontier Airlines convinced him to keep e-mailing. Unfortunately, his list grew so large that sending single blasts violated the provisions of his Comcast account. He might have had to abandon the chore entirely were it not for Carol Miller of www.netnewsdesk.com, a company that specializes in corporate newsletters. Last October, with Miller's help, Hudson created the website and formalized the process of sending weekly updates about jobs in PR and related fields to a gargantuan number of job seekers and providers. "Right now, I have approximately 5,000 subscribers," Hudson says, "and I'm adding an average of 75 new subscribers a week."
There's no charge to sign up, and Hudson doesn't make any money from the endeavor; in his view, it's a way of "paying it forward" that honors the way folks assisted him when he was just starting out. He notes that quite a few journalists have made the leap to PR thanks to his list, and others would like to -- but they'll have to remain nameless. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who subscribe who'd prefer that their employers didn't know," he says.
At least not yet.