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.
In her introduction, Walters heavily weighted her statements in favor of the Ramseys, promising to present "new crime-scene photos and surprising information that may contradict what you've been told." The structure of the program echoed this approach, opening with allegedly tough questions (the sometimes-dubious answers to which Walters studiously avoided challenging) before transitioning into segments on the intruder theory that appeared designed to undercut what all those bad investigators have been saying about these nice people for so long. Combine that with the warm, familial setting and the usual Walters soft-focus photography, which seemed to surround all three in the warm glow of kinship, and you had an hour of TV time that couldn't have gone any better for the Ramseys had they scripted it themselves. Walters provided the Ramseys with a local bonus afterward: In an interview with Channel 7's Mitch Jelniker that immediately followed 20/20, she said that, in her opinion, either the Ramseys were the best actors who ever lived, or they've been tortured for three years. Score!
The opening portions of Couric's series for the Today show, which were still airing at press time, went just as well. Patsy, who wore the same powder-blue hue in her sit-down with Walters (the color of innocence, perhaps?), seemed less woozy and bizarre on 20/20 and Today than she did in past TV appearances, while John came across as a bit softer and more sincere. Obviously, practice helps -- and so do news outlets that see mutual benefits in keeping the Ramseys talking and this audience-grabbing subject alive.
At the beginning of her first Ramsey segment, Couric said as much: "By the time we're through, you may feel even more strongly about their guilt or innocence -- but before you decide, listen to their entire story."
Many of those who have aren't buying it. Governor Bill Owens insisted on receiving equal time from GMA, and during a March 20 interview he not only accused the Ramseys of misleading the American public, but chided Walters for making "no follow-up" with them -- a totally legitimate beef. For his part, Boyles, on KHOW, was nattering on about pineapple in JonBenét's stomach ad nauseum. And the Post's Green? He kicked off a March 20 column pointing out inconsistencies in the Ramseys' statements with the following: "My apologies for another Ramsey column. I'm more sick of writing them than you are of reading them." Doubt it. Later, Green said he hoped this would be his last Ramsey column until John and Patsy make good on their promise to take lie-detector tests. You can bet we'll be keeping track.
That same day, the News ran the second half of Lisa Levitt Ryckman's two-part interview with the Ramseys. This predictably puffy opus may have been one of the couple's few miscalculations: Ryckman is so widely thought to be in the Ramseys's pocket (she penned an August 1997 apologia for the News headlined "Are They Innocent?" and once refused to appear on Rivera's cable program alongside Boyles) that her involvement merely provided ammo to critics. The same can be said of the Ramseys' promise to banter with Channel 9's Paula Woodward, one of seven locals whose May 1997 press conference with the Ramseys gave softball a bad name. There'll likely be little bang for that buck.
Nonetheless, ex-consultant Korten, who's now vice president of communications for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative Christian cause, believes that the Ramseys have plenty to gain by talking. "It's a pity they weren't in the position to open up earlier. I think the earlier they could have told their story fully and completely, the better off they, and all of us, would have been. There were legal circumstances in the case that the attorneys thought mitigated against that, and I respect their opinion. But it's a shame that the one approach to this case that might have eventually helped us find the murderer was ignored for so long. And my fear is that it's too late now."
But when it comes to good publicity, there's all the time in the world.
The KVOD rumor patrol, whose musings were printed in this space last week, was half right. Clear Channel, which needed to divest the classical outlet as part of its merger with AMFM, didn't give the station away; instead, the firm sold it to Dallas's Rodriguez Communications for a reported $3.75 million. But as predicted, the outlet wound up in the hands of a minority-owned business of the sort FCC chairman William E. Kennard suggested Clear Channel seriously consider, thereby giving the Justice Department, which must sign off on the deal, another reason to say "yes."
Most observers assume that Rodriguez Communications will install a Spanish-language format at KVOD, but Chuck Brooks, the company's president, is noncommittal. Brooks and company have been in a buying mood of late, adding a whopping eighteen radio stations and three TV operations to what was until recently a modest portfolio of one TV channel and two radio properties, all based in Dallas. Brooks notes that another half-dozen transactions are likely to be announced in the next week or two. But while the TV stations will be switched to what he calls "a Spanish-language MTV format," some of the radio acquisitions aren't slated for an overhaul. "We bought a classic-rock station that we don't plan on changing," he says.
Brooks adds that he's received good reports about KVOD and wants to meet with the management and staff there before reaching any conclusions about its future. But when he's asked if the español-or-not-español decision might be affected by the recent entry into the market of Hispanic Broadcasting, which is set to transform the just-purchased Peak with a Spanish format, Brooks makes it clear that he's not one to shy away from confrontations. "We changed one of our Dallas stations to Spanish last November, and Arbitron extrapolations from January show it's already the number-one station of its kind, over the Hispanic Broadcasting stations and everyone else."
Can you read between those lines? I knew you could.
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Meanwhile, Ken Hamblin, who bemoaned the fact that his nationally syndicated radio program couldn't be heard in his hometown when he was profiled in this space ("Man Without a City," November 18, 1999), is back on the Mile High airwaves -- sort of. KLMO, a Longmont station at 1060 AM, began broadcasting Hamblin on March 20; he's on the air from 1-4 p.m. weekdays. But the outlet has just 10,000 watts of power, making it difficult to receive in some metro locations, and virtually no promotion budget. Last year, Hamblin told Westword, "I'd put a thousand dollars on the table betting you that if I was on in Denver right now, I'd get a three-share [rating] in the first [Arbitron] book, and it would build from there -- because this is my town."
I'd like a piece of that action.