NEW YORK – But more than simply covering the case, the media has become part of the case, putting pressure on investigators and piquing public curiosity.
This began almost immediately after the Christmas 1996 killing. On January 13, 1997, supermarket tabloid the Globe published stolen crime-scene photos. A former sheriff's deputy and a photo lab employee were arrested two days later for leaking the pictures.
That was only the beginning of the tabloid infiltration. In a new book which details the investigation, author Lawrence Schiller reveals that Globe reporter Jeff Shapiro regularly spent hours at a time in the company of Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter, getting scoops on the continuing investigation. Hunter's office did not immediately return a call for comment.
Fox News's Boulder correspondent Carol McKinley, who has covered the Ramsey murder case from day one, says tabloids have "come out with some really good stories on this because people close to the case were leaking, knowing that they were using the tabs — and the tabs were using them."
The only problem, she says is that with their wild-eyed headlines and sensational insinuations, tabloids "take a small kernel and embellish it until it (is) huge and make it mean something else. A lot of times they're right, but (only) half right, and they go 100 miles further than they should have — and a lot of times they're downright wrong."
In covering the Ramsey murder, McKinley has witnessed the extreme tactics of the tabloids, which she says sometimes come "close to extortion."
"They misrepresent themselves, they pretend like they're church members and go and sit in a church, they've become friends with families so they can get things," she said. "You can't trust anyone in a story like this because you don't know who they are, and the tabs were able to infiltrate Boulder because Boulder didn't know that. It's basically a sleepy university town, and no one was prepared to be fooled."
Just as the case has fed the press, the press has changed the case. Without the media heat, "the investigation may have gone on as long, but certainly there wouldn't have been the subtext of the story," Schiller told Fox News. "There wouldn't have been the existence of all the dirt under the carpet because it's the tabloid media that really produced people to act differently than they were accustomed to act."
This has the potential to hurt the case. "It's unhealthy for the investigation," said Bob Grant, Adams County D.A. and an advisor to Boulder D.A. Hunter. "Thanks to an overabundance of tabloid journalism and the legitimate press too, everybody's got an opinion. Everybody thinks they know whodunit and how."
The worst danger is that the grand jurors charged with bringing an indictment in the case will be influenced by the press, Grant said. But this is unlikely, he added. "They are to put everything out of their minds except what they hear in the courtroom. They were selected with that in mind."
Mainstream Press Drops Out
Bob Amundson, research director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs says sensational coverage is "detrimental to any investigation, confuses the public and probably adds to public dissatisfaction."
He notes that this kind of coverage has continued on a regular basis while mainstream news organizations have noticeably pulled away from the case.
Indeed, network news coverage of the case, which Amundson's Center monitors, has dropped dramatically. In 1997 there were 84 stories on the JonBenet Ramsey murder on ABC, NBC and CBS evening newscasts. This ranked ahead of the suicide of Versace killer Andrew Cunanan (82 reports) but behind Oklahoma bombing trial coverage and "residual" OJ stories, Amundson said.
Scott McKiernan, a photojournalist, can attest to this intensity. He spent 8 months working in Boulder, taking pictures, the longest amount of time a single story has ever warranted, he said. By contrast, he covered Oklahoma City after the bombing for just three weeks, he said.
In 1998, however, there were only eight stories broadcast about the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey on the evening network newscasts.
Whether or not the Schiller book, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, chalks up an evening newscast story for 1999, it has led many mainstream media organizations, including this one, to revisit the case this week. (The book is published by Harper Collins which, like Fox News Online, is a subsidiary of News Corporation.)
Meanwhile, the tabloids have been, as Amundson put it, "launching into whole new theories, whole new explanations. Virtually everybody the little girl ever met" has been branded a suspect.
Lately the tabloid spin has been that JonBenet's older brother Burke is a chief suspect. "Grand Jury Targets Brother, 12" announced the Globe this month. McKinley says the motives behind such a headline are other than truth.
After a police source told her the claim was baseless, McKinley says, "I talked to the tabloid reporter who was in charge of that story. I said 'why are you going after this child?' And the reporter said 'because it's the only angle that people will pay for anymore. They're tired of the John angle, they're tired of the Patsy angle.'"
The Globe did not return calls for comment Wednesday and Thursday.
Whatever the result, it is clear that much of the public remains interested in the case. "I understand people's need for closure," Grant said. "You've got a dead child here."
Public Fascination Remains
The continuing obsession with the case is easily explainable: Add to the fact that the victim was a child the whodunit factor, the specter of wealth and the fact that JonBenet was a successful child beauty queen and daughter of a former Miss West Virginia.
The Ramseys "expected ... that she would (one day) be known the world round as 'JonBenet,'" Denver Post columnist Chuck Green told Fox News. By the age of six she had already won the title Little Miss Colorado as well as numerous other beauty pageant awards.
While one might think the negative spotlight on beauty pageants would dim the public appeal of the contests, the opposite seems to have happened. When JonBenet competed in the All-Star Kids Pageant in 1996, there was a total of fifteen entrants. Since her death, People magazine reports, that number has jumped to nearly 50.
Dozens of Web sites are devoted to JonBenet and her case. Some are meticulously crafted memorials dripping with celebrity worship. Others aim to be information clearinghouses. JonBenet's parents John and Patsy Ramsey hired media consultants in addition to lawyers and set up their own Web site filled with fliers and ads seeking information on their daughter's killer.
And the public apparently is keeping up too. A popular site following the case, JusticeWatch, crashed Monday due to traffic inspired by the release of Schiller book excerpts in Newsweek and the Rocky Mountain News, said McKinley.
All of this is monitored by investigators. "The police and the DA's office keep up with" the sites, McKinley says. "They use it to judge public opinion."