Friday, August 18, 2006

Solved! Far from solved!

One more brief rant about the abysmal performance of the nation's news organizations in the Great JonBenet Case, and then it's off to real work.

Alert readers will recall that as of yesterday, the Decade-Old Mystery had been
SOLVED!
by a Stunning Confession. Well, stop the press. Again. As of this morning, it's
far from solved
to hear the Raleigh N&O and the Fresno Bee tell it (at the feckless Charlotte Observer, it's "not closed just yet").

One hates to rub it in (no, actually, one doesn't hate to rub it in), but if the particle physicists who run America's budget meetings hadn't launched into feeding-frenzy mode when the alleged story first purportedly broke, they wouldn't have to be backtracking into rudimentary common sense on Day Two.

Here's a tiny reminder of what you're buying into when you bet the family real estate on official accounts of purported confessions:

Suwat also said Friday that his statement about the girl being picked from school was based on a documentary he had seen and not the interrogation.

Right. That's the lieutenant-general of the Thai immigration cops saying that the bit about her being picked up from school (the day after Christmas) wasn't from the interrogation at all. He saw it on, um, TV or something. Note that HEADSUP-L, beacon of cross-cultural understanding that he is, isn't going anywhere near any questions about what sorts of tea and cakes were served during the "interrogation."

Once again: It's not a "confession" when the cops say he confessed. It's not a "confession" when the guy talks to reporters. It's a statement of some sort whose truth value remains determinedly undetermined. Get it right the first time, you won't have to backtrack on the front the next day.

Not, of course, that everybody backtracked much:

Confession and confusion
Philadelphia Inquirer

JonBenet confession vague, puzzling
The (Columbia) State

Then there's the false dichotomy:
Killer or kook?
Beaver County Times

... with the Harvard Lampoon touch:
Killer or crazy?
TribPM

How much is this misbegotten tale consuming in the way of resources? Well, it's a relief to note that some papers managed to give substantial play to the wiretap ruling (and Columbus even managed a declarative headline on it). But the picture isn't universally encouraging. The AP bilge cited above has five contributors in addition to the bylined writer. Our old buddy Linray brought up the Richard Jewell case, which is always a useful reminder. It's also worth recalling what the national scare story was five years ago this month. (Hint: Try searching your friendly neighborhood database for "shark w/5 attack" for Aug. 19-Sept. 10, 2001.)

The Jewell case is a blunder we know. The scarier ones are the ones we don't know yet. Every byline chasing another irrelevant comment about John Karr's sports car is one that could be giving a moment's thought to what isn't in the news yet but ought to be.

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