Commentary Magazine


Public Opinion and the Jogger

The New York Times is not the paper of record on crime. In the division of labor that controls newspaper reporting in New York City, the three tabloids—the Daily News, the Post, and Newsday— cover local crime. The Times covers Nagorno-Karabakh.

When a crime is particularly heinous or unusual, however, the Times will bring the weight of its attention to bear upon it. The coverage the Times devotes to a story can be factually useful; its treatment of the case of Tawana Brawley was notably thorough and revealing. More important is the role of the Times in expressing the public opinion of the event.

Public opinion, at least as it appears in the Times, should not be confused with popular sentiment. (We owe this distinction to John Lukacs.) Popular sentiment is what everyone thinks. Public opinion is what everyone thinks he ought to think. Popular sentiment is what people say to one another around their dinner tables. Public opinion is what they say to callers from polling organizations. The two may overlap, of course. But it is ever the intention of responsible people—and the Times is nothing if not responsible—to transmute the base metal of the one into the good coin of the other.

In Trollope novels, the Times of London, disguised as the Thunderer, creates public opinion by fiat. The Times of New York has no such power. The opinion that appears in its pages is the result of the interplay of several factors, of which the Times’s editorials and op-ed pieces are perhaps the least important. Public opinion in the Times also reflects the questions its reporters choose to explore, and the people to whom they turn for answers; the way the resulting stories are played; and, finally, the reactions of public figures, who have been influenced by past currents of public opinion.

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On the night of April 19, 1989 a twenty-eight-year-old investment banker was attacked as she jogged along the 102nd Street Transverse in northern Central Park. Her attackers slashed her, beat her with a rock and a pipe, raped her, and left her in a puddle where she was found, three-and-a-half hours later, bound and gagged and nearly naked. She was not the only crime victim in the northern part of the park that night: eight other people, men and women, were harassed or assaulted. A male jogger who was struck on the head with a pipe—evidently the same one used to batter the young woman—had to be hospitalized.

The crime spree was the work of a band of teenagers of shifting size. The police arrested five that night as they were leaving the park. Over the next few days, more arrests were made until the police held eight suspects (later reduced to six) for the rape. The oldest was seventeen. The youngest was fourteen.

In the weeks that followed, most of the Times’s coverage was devoted to the unfolding details: accounts of how the alleged attackers had assembled, and what exactly they had done; bulletins on the condition of the victim; profiles of her, and of the suspects; the preliminary charges of the assistant district attorney, and the rebuttals of the defense lawyers; a piece on the ethos of late-night joggers. There was even speculation on how the crime might affect the mayoral race—Mayor Koch is perceived as being tough on crime, but Rudolph Giuliani, his likely Republican opponent, is a former prosecutor. Early on, a new word was added to the vocabulary of Times readers: “wilding” (pronounced, the Times noted, with a silent “d”). But all along, as befits an organ of public opinion, the Times also sought to explain—to put the grotesque and monstrous incident in some context.

The victim was easily explained. We learned, it seemed, everything about her except her name—the Times and the other dailies withheld it, on the grounds that she was a rape victim, and still alive—and everything we learned about her was impressive. She had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wellesley, where the lowest grade she ever got was A—. While there, she had worked at a shelter for battered women in Boston, and spent a summer as a congressional intern. After graduation, she did another internship, for the State Department in Zimbabwe. A graduate degree from the Yale School of Management led to a job at Salomon Brothers, where her work was described as “top-notch.” She also loved running—“she was really obsessed by running,” a former colleague said. She was, in short, smart and able, and also had, as the Times profile put it, “warmth and compassion.” By herself, she supplied half of a ready-made tale of two cities—a combination of success and virtue, far more attractive than Tom Wolfe’s weak and egotistical Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, who was also brought low by the city’s underside.

The suspects were a different matter. When the Times turned to them, the story line—all story lines—broke apart. Public opinion was baffled.

The problem was motive, or lack of it. There were no underlying causes of the sort beloved by sociologists. There were not even plausible personal motives of the kind sought by the police. Greed had to be discounted, since only two of the victims were actually robbed (one of them lost a sandwich). Drugs, the all-purpose urban bogeyman, also did not seem to be a factor. From what Chief of Detectives Robert Colangelo was reported as saying, the suspects—at least those arrested on the spot—had been clean and sober at the time of the crime. Nothing in the profiles the Times pieced together later mentioned drug-selling or drug use.

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What about the “underclass”? The “underclass” is a term so vague it is almost circular: a person is defined as a member of the underclass because of his compulsive performance of the kind of behavior that keeps people . . . in the underclass. But the word is not, in fact, content-free. Not all poor people belong to the underclass, but everyone in the underclass is poor. If the young woman’s attackers did not want her money, might they at least have been inflamed by the fact that she had money, and they didn’t? On April 25, in the middle of a story about “the apparently motiveless rampage,” the Times tentatively floated such a notion.

“For many psychologists,” the Times reporter wrote, “the idea of attacking people who seem to personify a level of unattainable affluence is a common pattern among participants in wolf-pack attacks.” The Times then turned to an expert, Dr. Leah Blumberg Lapidus, a psychologist at Columbia, who suggested that “joggers may represent a level of socioeconomic attainment that the media have convinced everybody is necessary to have in order to be an acceptable person. . . . So, to that extent, such people become a target.”

The next day, however, the Times undercut the underclass argument simply by printing profiles of the eight suspects. “Some were the children of broken homes,” the Times began cautiously, “and certainly all bore daily witness to the abounding pathology of drugs, drink, and poverty. But four lived in a building with a doorman, and one went to a parochial school. One received an allowance of $4 a day from his father. . . .” The “building with a doorman” was Schomburg Plaza, a moderate- to middle-income high-rise complex at the northeast corner of Central Park—not Park Avenue swank, but not desolation, either. “This is not a community, people here say,” the Times noted in a separate story a week later on the Schomburg Plaza’s neighborhood, “that should be branded with the images of poverty, fear, and despair. . . . According to police and census data, the neighborhood is not plagued either by sky-high crime rates or wrenching poverty.”

Other stigmata of the underclass were also missing. The father of one of the original suspects was described as a neighborhood role model who coached a baseball team that had competed in a tournament in Puerto Rico; his son played third base. Another suspect’s mother was a born-again Christian who had been in church the night of the assaults. One teenager played drums in a church choir. The teenager who attended a Catholic school had also been enrolled in the Big Brother program. Two of the suspects’ parents, the Times reported, set curfews for their children. Only one of the suspects—the drummer—had any criminal record. These were not abandoned children. Their parents worked hard to keep them out of trouble. The Times headlined the piece: “Park Suspects: Children of Discipline.”

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The one motive the Times was relieved not to find was race. For the first three days of its coverage, the Times did not mention race. The first five teenagers to be arrested were described as living in “northern Manhattan,” rather than in Harlem. When the Times dropped the race taboo, it was in a story about black fears of a white backlash. That same day—the fourth of its coverage—the paper ran another story speculating that some of the Central Park suspects may have been involved in an earlier rampage on April 15, which had victimized East Harlem (not “northern Manhattan”).

To a degree, the Times was taking its cues from the police. In the beginning, when the police saw no racial angle, the Times reported that. When, after five days, the police said they were looking at the racial angle, the Times, warily, reported that too. “The question of whether this was a series of bias-related incidents is being looked at very closely,” the Times quoted Deputy Commissioner Alice T McGillion, in the same story that picked the brains of Dr. Lapidus. Evidence of “bias,” the Times went on, included “testimony from victims” of the crime spree—testimony to what? racial abuse? the Times did not elaborate—and a statement by one of the rape suspects that another member of the group had suggested that they “get a white girl.”

The Times then performed the evidently distasteful task of listing the races of the people involved. The rape victim: white. The teenagers accused of assailing her: black. The eight other victims of the night’s wilding: five white, two Hispanic, and one black “who was briefly harassed until one youth shouted that he knew the man.” The following day, the Times let the racial explanation go again. One of the suspects’ lawyers, the Times reported, denied that any “get a white” remark had been made. The story went on to quote “police officials and other authorities familiar with what some call wolf-pack crimes” as saying that “the phenomenon cuts across all racial and ethnic lines, and that, statistically, blacks tend to outnumber whites as victims in such attacks.” “The question,” the Times pronounced editorially the same day, “demands more than the quick reassurance of a label.”

Some public figures found reassurance in other labels. Reverend Herbert Daughtry, a black minister, declared that this was a “violent society,” which we were “all guilty” of creating. Rabbi Balfour Brickner, a liberal rabbi, fingered economic disparity between racial groups as the cause of urban crime. One commentator in a major paper, Pete Hamill of the New York Post, blamed Washington directly: “For twenty years, conservatives have run the federal government and we are living with the consequences of their policies.”

But public officials shared the Times’s agnosticism—an indication of how well the Times was performing its opinion-expressing role. “You name me one social reason you can give to explain it,” demanded an angry Mayor Koch at a press conference. Later, he called the attackers “an aberrant group that would have assaulted anyone in their way.” The wilding mob, offered Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, was looking for “targets of opportunity. . . . it looks as though they picked their victims at random and that there was no other reason for the attacks.”

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The Times made a last effort to find the slow reassurance of an explanation two weeks after the crime occurred. The effort was double-barreled. A Times book and TV critic asked experts about the possible role of television in stimulating the crime and found a confusion of tongues. One professor of communications felt that blaming the medium was “far-fetched.” Another blamed commercials for encouraging “a psychopathic world view” and “class-based anger.” A third attacked television not for inciting the crime, but for the way it had covered it afterward, which had “play[ed] on the fears of the white middle class.” “Television,” the Times critic concluded wearily, “as usual, is guilty, only no one can say for certain of what.”

The bigger story that day mustered four macro-level theories, all buttressed by experts, under the headline “Grim Seeds of Park Rampage Found in East Harlem Streets.” Two of these theories implicated crack. Since the drug was not involved directly, its influence had to be traced indirectly. The key verb was permeate: “Crack permeates East Harlem.” This permeation had led to “an extraordinary resurgence of violence,” according to Philippe Bourgois, an anthropologist living in East Harlem, since “to be successful in the underground economy, you have to be ruthless.” Crack also distorted the roles of adults and kids. “In the community as a whole,” said Ansley Hamid, another East Harlem-based anthropologist, “there is a prominence that youth have on account of their control of this important commodity.”

The third theory looked to gangs, or posses. The problem with New York City posses, it seems, is that they are not structured enough. Joan Moore, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, was cited as a student of Chicano gangs in Los Angeles, where apparently they do it better. In a “more goal-oriented gang,” the Times paraphrased her, leaders can rein in the “most frenzied” members.

The last theory was a recycling of underclass resentment. William Kornblum, an academic at the City University of New York, said his “research has found that East Harlem ranks higher than any other neighborhood in the United States on indicators of the underclass.” (The reporter of this story and the reporter of the story on the Schomburg Plaza should have gotten together.) Meanwhile, the Upper East Side, only blocks away, “represents the greatest concentration of wealth that we have found anywhere in the United States.”

These theories were offered as explanations of the crime, but they did not explain it away. This, at least, seemed to be the feeling of the residents of East Harlem, as reported by the two anthropologists who had come to study them. “Everyone condemns it,” the Times quoted Bourgois. “Everyone is disgusted,” Hamid agreed. Nor was the Times swept away by its own results. It put the “Grim Seeds” story in the third section of the newspaper, the “Science Times.” Two days later, its second editorial on the subject repeated that “those arrested evidently did not act out of racial hostility, involvement with drugs, or economic deprivation.” The Times’s last characterization of the crime was “random brutality.” Public opinion had drawn a blank.

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The most important reason for public opinion’s agnostic reaction to the Central Park rape may be a weariness with distractions. Tom Wicker’s op-ed column, “The Worst Fear,” on the eighth day of the Times’s coverage, was a notable expression of that weariness. “None of the usual suspects,” he wrote early on, “can be rounded up,” after which he made the by-now ritual dismissal of drugs, race, and the underclass, though he could not let it go at that: “The attackers lived surrounded and surely influenced by the social pathologies of the inner city. . . . These influences are bound to have had some consequences.” But there was a second “but.” “The bleak existence of the inner city does not finally explain this crime. Nothing does. . . .” That was the “worst fear” of his title, that the crime was “inexplicable.”

In the effort to discover why crimes happen, we risk losing the ability and the will to deal properly with the principals after the crimes have occurred. Therefore if public opinion is finally growing weary of explanations—not just in this case but in general—something good may yet come out of the Central Park evil.

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