J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Witness: Media Malpractice at Its Most Painful

When 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 here), which opens this Friday in New York.

In 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.

In 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.

Perhaps 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.

Frustratingly, 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 exploitative).

More 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.

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