it comes to armchair sociology, the significance of the Catherine “Kitty”
Genovese case ranks alongside the Stanley Milgram experiments. However, much of
what we know of the brutal 1964 murder might have been exaggerated to such an
extent, it became materially misleading. Unfortunately, in the 1960s, before
Jayson Blair and the exposure of Walter Duranty’s knowingly falsified reports
from Soviet Russia, the New York Times was
actually considered a reputable paper—and its power and influence were
undeniable. With contemporary journalism and scholarship starting to question
the notorious story of thirty-eight witnesses who callously stood by without
intervening, Genovese’s youngest brother William set out to determine the
truth, with James Solomon documenting the process in The Witness (trailer
which opens this Friday in New York.
retrospect, those thirty-eight witnesses ought to sound like a suspiciously
precise number. It turns out the police conducted thirty-eight “witness”
interviews, but that hardly means all thirty-eight indifferently watched
Winston Moseley murder Kitty Genovese from their windows. As William Genovese tracks
down surviving residents from his sister’s apartment complex, their statements
start to contradict the official NYT story.
Evidently, some residents actually called 9-11 and shouted down trying to stop
Moseley. Yet, there will be even more consequential revelations casting doubt
on the Times.
a way, the exposure of the Times’
embellishment is good news, making a tragic incident somewhat less horrific,
but it is important to remember the implications of their dubious journalism.
The Times’ narrative has caused immeasurable
pain for the Genovese family and indelibly tarred the reputation of the working
class Kew Gardens, Queens neighborhood with shame. His resulting compulsion to accept
responsibility also led William Genovese to volunteer for service in Vietnam,
where he lost his legs during an ambush.
most problematically, Kitty Genovese had been reduced to a misunderstood
soundbite, like Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” Fortunately, Solomon and Genovese
devote as much time to reclaiming her individuality and humanity as they do to
correcting the false narratives surrounding her. In fact, she sounds like the
sort of person who was just great fun to be around, which deepens and broadens the
poignancy of her story.
there are not a lot of opportunities left for the culpable to accept some
responsibility. For instance, it appears former editor A.M. Rosenthal may very
well have been beyond the point such mea culpas might be possible in an
uncomfortably awkward interview recorded before his death in 2006 (it is Catch-22
footage that really has to be in the film, even though it feels almost
infuriating is the self-serving, passive aggressive letter Moseley sent
Genovese, declining his interview request, while claiming his sister was
actually killed by a mafia hitman. Clearly, Moseley remained an evil, cowardly
monster to his dying day, but unfortunately his son, Rev. Stephen Moseley
absorbed some of his father’s ridiculous mafia fantasies, even asking William
Genovese if he was part of the Genovese Crime Family.
Rarely, has “true crime” ever been as
emotionally devastating as it is in The Witness.
Absolute truth remains elusive, but Genovese and Solomon meticulously build a
case that will convince viewers of good conscience the murder of his sister was
nothing like what it was reported to be. Now that a more accurate narrative is
taking shape, how will the media respond? Even the Times seemed to acknowledge the deficiencies of the original 1964
story and immediate follow-ups in its obituary for Moseley, but does that
fulfill their obligation to the truth? Can the paper ignore a stinging J’accuse
and a heartfelt eulogy like The Witness
as it gains traction in the public consciousness? Probably, but anyone who
appreciates documentaries and legit investigative journalism should absolutely
not miss it when the very highly recommended film opens this Friday (6/3) in
New York, at the IFC Center.
Labels: Documentary, Kitty Genovese