Who killed fair reporting?

July 17, 1998

Eighteen months ago six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was brutally murdered. The killer has never been found, so the media provided some suspects - her parents. The subsequent trial by TV so infuriated professor of journalism Michael Tracey that he quit his classroom to show how biased the reporting was. Tim Cornwell reports

For reporters who covered the case, and millions of people worldwide who read about it, the murder of little JonBenet Ramsey carried a 19th-century quality of horror. The precocious six-year-old girl was garotted on Christmas night in a wealthy home in a university city, her blonde curls and blue eyes remembered in macabre videos from child beauty contests.

Michael Tracey, a veteran British observer of the media and for ten years a journalism professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, the Ramsey family's home city, refused for months to acknowledge the story that landed on his doorstep. But he has now descended from the ivory tower and jumped feet first into the case.

Tracey's documentary on the media's treatment of the Ramsey murder, his first venture into the business of making television after two decades of writing and theorising about it, was aired last week on Channel Four. But it has yet to find an American broadcaster.

The reason is easy to see. After securing four days of exclusive interviews with the murdered girl's parents, who were placed under an "umbrella of suspicion" by the police and widely mentioned as suspects in the press, Tracey concludes that they are the victims of a media and public lynching.

In the documentary, broadcast here as Who Killed JonBenet?, he not only takes on the American press but also the "common sense" of everyone who looked at the behaviour of the parents, and of the child, and concluded there was something fundamentally wrong. The public has been betrayed, he suggests, by reporting that has been sensationalist and biased. It included, for example, a televised mock trial on Geraldo Rivera's talk show, which ended in a "guilty" verdict.

"At the end of the day, the only story that was being told about this couple was that they killed the kid," Tracey says. "What we did in the documentary was to question that." He refuses, for the record, to pronounce them innocent or guilty, but makes it plain where his feelings lie. "You have to imagine that these two people were capable of garotting JonBenet while she was still alive ... no one comes away thinking, yeah, they could have done that."

To recap, briefly, John Ramsey and his second wife, Patsy, were a wealthy and prominent couple in Boulder, a liberal university city nestled in the Rockies. He was a computer entrepreneur whose company had just run up $1 billion in sales. She was a former Miss West Virginia and Miss America contestant who, by most accounts, was grooming her daughter to compete for and win that same prize.

On December 26 1996, at 6am, police were called to the Ramsey house by a hysterical Patsy. Her daughter was missing from her bedroom and a 370-word ransom note claiming to be from "a small foreign faction" demanded $118,000. Curiously, it emerged later, the amount was the same as Mr Ramsey's annual bonus. It was written on a notepad from inside the house.

When the detective at the scene eventually instructed John Ramsey and a friend to search the house, Ramsey appeared minutes later bearing her body. Her mouth had been sealed with duct tape, her head bashed in, and a cord around her neck with a broken paint-brush handle was used as a garotte. In police eyes, it appears, the couple spun rapidly from kidnap victims to prime suspects.

The couple began to exercise their right to remain silent, hiring eight lawyers and half a dozen publicists and private investigators. It took four months of negotiations before they would consent to be interviewed beyond their initial statements to police. Their spokesmen now blame the police's one-track focus on the parents for this breakdown in relations.

After 18 months, opinions are sharply divided within Colorado on the Ramsey case. By working with the family, Tracey himself has become the target of pointed remarks by local columnists. "There have been intimations about this foreign member of the faculty being paid Colorado state dollars," said his dean Wilard Rowland. "Hell hath no fury like a journalist scooped."

Tracey earned his PhD at the University of Leicester's Centre for Mass Communication Research. He was recruited by the University of Colorado's School of Journalism and Mass Communications about ten years ago. Colleagues there say he is one of the "least journalistic" on the faculty; his background is in the British academic tradition of media studies rather than in the American school of professional journalism education. Tracey says he at first resolved to ignore the Ramsey case, although 500 reporters from round the world converged on Boulder. Now, he says, he has thought of little else in the past nine months. Many people believe the police never will file charges, let alone win a conviction. But if they do, he will be seen as coming down hard on the parents' side of the fence.

It was after he repeatedly condemned the coverage in the local press as "voyeuristic, exploitative, outrageous, unfair and denying the assumption of innocence" that a Ramsey lawyer approached him. Patsy Ramsey, he was told, wanted to speak to his journalism class. Tracey thought this unworkable, but came back with his documentary proposal and, to his astonishment, the family approved it - over the heated objections of their lawyers.

It ended with a couple he called "the very model of the American dream" being questioned over several days by a British professor and his production crew.

Tracey says he has concentrated on three or four core "mythologies" of the case as reported by the media and exploded them. Among them is the claim that police had ruled out an intruder coming into the house. In a police report that was never released, he says, officers at the Ramsey house discovered six open windows, and one open door, partly because the Ramseys' had wires leading to Christmas lights outside.

He claims to have disproved reports - mostly in the tabloid press - that JonBenet was sexually abused, and that her father had a taste for child pornography. Another example of the "unbelievable nonsense" put about, he says, is that one of John Ramsey's daughters from an earlier marriage, who died in a car accident, was sexually abused.

In the documentary, the Ramseys echo Tracey's criticism of the media. They adamantly deny any part in their daughter's murder and blame the press for perpetuating a lie "told so many times that people start to believe it as the truth".

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