Monday, October 17, 2016

Beware The New York Times! (No Joke)

Last night my husband and I were transfixed by a gripping 2004 documentary on Netflix called The Witness, which deals with the 1964 true crime story of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bar manager in the affluent Queens, New York neighborhood of Kew Gardens. She often worked until two or three in the morning. One night she returned home, parked her car in her usual spot in front of her apartment building, and was raped and stabbed to death by a man whose stated motive was that he was "looking for a girl to kill" that night. The reason it stayed in the headlines, turning Kitty's 15 minutes of fame into 50 years, was a front-page story in the New York Times claiming that 38 of her neighbors had witnessed the ongoing crime for a full half-hour, gaping out of their nearby apartment windows as if they were watching a play down below, and not one of them did a thing to stop it.

Kitty Genovese: A household name overnight.
I was 18 years old at the time, living just twenty minutes from the crime scene and about to go off to college. The story blew my already fragile nervous system to smithereens and added to my inherent distrust of just about anyone and everyone. Fortunately, owing to the callousness of youth I forgot about it soon enough, still I always believed the premise that nobody gives a damn about you unless they are family, and sometimes not even then.

So I was further blown away by this movie, which explains in detail through the obsessive detective work of Kitty's surviving younger brother, William Genovese, that not all was as reported by the newspapers and in the many, many TV specials and a couple of books devoted to the murder. It turns out that nobody watched it happen, but some people were awakened by screams. Several of them did call the police. One man yelled out his window and the assailant ran off, only to return soon after to finish the deed. Another woman, a close friend of Kitty's, ran downstairs to her aid, but it was too late. Kitty died in her friend's arms.

We learn from interviews William conducts with several of the editors who worked at the Times back then, as well as a leading TV news anchor of the day, that the story was more compelling -- meaning sold more papers -- when it was "tweaked" a bit. (You know, like all that stuff about Donald Trump sexually assaulting women.) It's a great movie, by the way, with an always-interesting look at life in a simpler time and a harrowing audio reenactment of the crime you will not soon forget. In the not-dying-in-vain department, Kitty's death was the catalyst for the 911 Emergency System we have today.

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