Take a murder tale that has nothing to it except some alluring video of a
little girl dolled up for a beauty contest. Add media hunger to fill the gap
between O.J., Monica, and the Next Big Story. What do you get? Lots of
local media people cashing in on the ravenous appetite of national news
outlets for a story that had only one problem: There was never any real
By Katherine Rosman
On Tuesday, October 12, 1999, John Ashton, 52, grabbed a few
ties and his reporter's notebook and zoomed the 30 miles west on
U.S. 36 from his Denver apartment to the mountain hamlet of
Boulder, Colorado. Rumors were flying that the grand jury might
hand up an indictment in the JonBenét Ramsey murder investigation,
and Ashton needed to be there.
He arrived at the Justice Center, on the corner of Sixth Street and
Canyon Avenue, at about 1 p.m. The area around the two-story
building was already mobbed by reporters, satellite trucks, and
camera crews. Ashton elbowed his way to the center of the pack,
or "the belly of the beast," as he puts it. He took out his notepad
and his pen and waited among the hordes of reporters from
newspapers and television stations across the country.
He turned to his left and caught the glance of a similarly dressed
man with a microphone in his hand. "Which TV station are you
with?" the man asked. Ashton hesitated. "I'm not," he replied.
"We're doing a TV movie on that JonBenét thing."
Ashton is not a reporter, but he was hired to play one on TV. The
day before, he had got a call from his agent, who told the actor that
he had been cast as a reporter covering the murder of the
6-year-old in CBS's rendition of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town,
based on Lawrence Schiller's JonBenét book of the same name.
Schiller, Ashton, and about nine other actors were peppered among
the actual journalists. (Schiller is also directing the two-part TV
drama, which is tentatively scheduled to air on CBS February 27
and March 1.)
The crowd waited, wondering when -- if at all -- an announcement
about the jury's conclusions would be made. By 3:30, the reporters
had begun to realize that, on this day, no announcement would be
coming. So, for lack of anything else to shoot, the cameras swept
the crowd, capturing the scene of the sea of reporters and actors.
"It was reporters doing reporting on reporters who are actors
pretending to be reporters for an alleged documentary on something
that may or may not have happened," says Ashton, laughing. "It
was like a bunch of mirrors."
In the year of JonBenét's death, 804 children ages 12 and under
were murdered in the United States, according to the FBI's 1996
Uniform Crime Report. Her killing should never have been more than
a Denver-area story. In fact, "that JonBenét thing" might not ever
have made it to the national stage if not for timing. The 6-year-old
beauty pageant contestant died during the slowest news week of
the year -- the days between Christmas and the New Year, when
most businesses and the federal government are in low gear.
Then, for a while, JonBenét stayed in the news because of the
now-ubiquitous pageant videos and glossy pictures: JonBenét as
Rockette, JonBenét as cowgirl, JonBenét as glam girl, JonBenét as
feather-clad temptress. With the end of its beloved Simpson epic
on the horizon, the All-O.J.-All-The-Time media machine seized
upon the eerie but captivating photos of the child pinup and
manufactured its next "celebrity" murder trial.
Arguably, between September 1997, when Newsweek and Vanity
Fair published the full text of a ransom note found at the murder
scene, and October 13, 1999, when a grand jury announced it
would hand up no indictments, there have been no significant
But why let the absence of information get in the way of a good
story? From January 1, 1997, until November 19, 1999, 20/20, 48
Hours, Hard Copy, American Journal, Dateline NBC, Entertainment
Tonight, Extra, the weekend edition of Extra, and Inside Edition
aired a total of 438 JonBenét Ramsey segments, according to
NewsTV Reports, a Kansas-based auditor of television
newsmagazines. Geraldo Rivera -- on both CNBC's Rivera Live and
the defunct Geraldo Rivera Show -- has featured no fewer than 195
JonBenét-related segments. Larry King Live has devoted at least 44
segments to JonBenét.
Meanwhile, Newsweek has run about 30 JonBenét-related items and
stories; Time has published about 25. Since April 1997, the Globe,
The National Enquirer, the National Examiner, and the Star tabloids
have published 124, 73, 51, and 38 JonBenét items respectively,
according to the Joshua-7 website, a tabloid archive. JonBenét has
been pure gold for the tabs. In the year before Ramsey's death, the
Globe, for example, boasted a total paid circulation of its weekly
editions exceeding 1 million seven different times. In the year
following her death, that number jumped to 22. One can only
imagine the circus that would ensue should anyone ever be brought
to trial on this matter. Such a spectacle would make the O.J. trial
look like a Department of Agriculture background briefing.
The blizzard of coverage continues to shock John and Patsy
Ramsey, who sat down to discuss the press's obsession with their
daughter's murder. "We were manufactured to be hated," asserts
John Ramsey. "We were the media's product."
Dan Abrams, NBC News's legal correspondent, defends the media's
coverage of the JonBenét murder case. Not only are unsolved
murders fascinating in and of themselves, Abrams argues, but the
Ramsey case includes substantive legal issues, most notably how a
crime scene that is not immediately secured -- as in this case --
can forever taint an investigation. "There are intricacies of the legal
system that can be learned" from this case, Abrams says. "I think
there is a legitimate argument that the public has learned something
from the coverage of JonBenét's murder."
Patricia Calhoun, the editor of Denver's weekly alternative paper the
Westword, doesn't buy that. "What is the story," she asks, "except
that it's a national springboard for a lot of people?" Even those who
have leaped from that springboard, like Charlie Brennan of the
Denver Rocky Mountain News, acknowledge that more than a
national tragedy, the Ramsey tale is a career builder for journalists.
"I understand that her death is no greater tragedy than the loss of
any other child. And I've recognized that from the start," says
Brennan, who also toiled as the collaborator on Schiller's Perfect
Murder, Perfect Town. "But I also recognize that a lot of other
people seem to think it's a much bigger tragedy, a much bigger
deal, than all the other deaths." Ultimately, Brennan admits, "it has
been the greatest opportunity that I have had in my career to
carve out a name for myself."
Brennan was joined by a cadre of journalists who made it their
business to keep the business of JonBenét alive -- which has not
been easy, given the lack of information. Many relied on
sensationalism, untraditional tactics, and rule bending to keep this
nonstory in the headlines. In the process, they and their nonstory
became the quintessential symbol of a new age in which journalists,
faced with the job of finding the next Big Story to feed the
insatiable news machine, will reach down for material that by any
standard is not news and rely on the work of bottom feeders to fill
their pages and airwaves. In the end, the purported aim of finding
the truth and reporting it fell largely by the wayside as journalists
saw their own stars ascend, hitched to a 6-year-old girl famous
only in death.
Page 1 2 3 4 5 6
FOOTPRINTS IN WHAT SNOW?
On March 10, 1997, Charlie Brennan, a 15-year veteran of the
Denver Rocky Mountain News, was sitting at his desk in the
newsroom when a colleague tapped him on the shoulder and gave
him a tip about the JonBenét Ramsey case. It sounded like a good
one, so Brennan, 44, followed up by calling a man Brennan
characterizes as a "law-enforcement source."
The source confirmed the information Brennan's colleague had
passed along: The police noted in their initial report that there were
no footprints in the snow outside the Ramsey home the morning
after the murder. This made it unlikely that an intruder had entered
the home. Brennan scribbled down notes, made a few more calls,
and hunkered down to write his page 4 report:
Police who went to JonBenét Ramsey's home the morning she was
reported missing found no footprints in the snow surrounding the
house, sources said Monday.
That is one of the earliest details that caused investigators to
focus their attention on the slain girl's family, police sources said.
Although there was no significant storm just before police went to
the house the morning after Christmas, it had snowed lightly
several times from Dec. 23 to 25, weather records show.
Brennan's scoop was as close to a smoking gun as anything publicly
known at the time. Until that point, a broken basement window
on the south side of their home meant an intruder could have
gotten into the house and killed John and Patsy Ramsey's daughter.
Now a lack of footprints in the snow indicated otherwise.
Brennan's findings made national headlines, appearing in publications
such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Chicago Tribune, the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the San Francisco Examiner. Even
The New York Times reported Brennan's findings. (Those papers'
combined readership is 2,519,501.) In all, 23 publications and news
programs picked up the report, according to a search on the
His No Footprints In The Snow scoop solidified Brennan as an
important force on the Ramsey beat. When journalists from national
publications began parachuting into Boulder to get their share of
the action -- such as Vanity Fair's Ann Louise Bardach, and
Lawrence Schiller, who had been commissioned by The New Yorker
to cover the Ramsey murder -- Brennan was the man they called.
In fact, when Schiller decided to expand his New Yorker article into
a book, he hired Brennan to help with the reporting. (Brennan won't
say how much money he made from collaborating on Perfect
Murder, Perfect Town. The hardcover and paperback editions both
reached best-seller lists.)
Although Brennan was beginning to enjoy the national exposure --
The New York Times was reporting his discovery, Larry King Live
was calling -- his scoop would soon quietly fall apart.
When Daniel Glick heard about Brennan's No Footprints headliner, he
thought it was a bombshell. Glick, a former Washington
correspondent for Newsweek who now writes for the magazine from
Boulder County, even went so far as to say on Larry King Live that
if the Ramseys' claims of an intruder were to be believed, the killer
must have had the power to "levitate."
But in mid-June 1997, Glick and his writing partner, Sherry
Keene-Osborn, both began to question the story's accuracy.
Keene-Osborn said she got a call from an "impeccable source" who
warned her that much of what ran in the newspapers and
magazines (including Newsweek) was flat wrong. Glick says he
raised an eyebrow when, while visiting the Ramseys' Boulder house,
he noticed that flagstone surrounded its south side.
They started re-reporting Brennan's scoop. Glick says he found a
meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration who told him that there was little snowfall and that
the temperature had been mostly above freezing in the week prior
to the murder. Glick says he then deduced that because there were
no leaves on the trees to block the sunshine from reaching the
flagstone patio outside the broken window, there probably wasn't
any snow on the ground outside the broken window -- even though
there were patches of snow on the lawn. To confirm, Glick says, he
contacted a "frost expert" who told him that scientifically one
couldn't even determine whether or when frost would have been on
the ground outside the window. In other words, the police notation
of "no footprints" was meaningless; it certainly did not rule out the
entrance of an intruder.
Glick and Keene-Osborn wrote a story that questioned Brennan's
reporting. The article was largely ignored by other print outlets,
though Geraldo Rivera mentioned Newsweek's report on Rivera Live
and Glick discussed his findings on two episodes of Larry King Live.
Given the relatively little play by the media outlets that had so
quickly picked up Brennan's No Footprints piece, Glick and
Keene-Osborn's piece hardly made a dent in what John and Patsy
Ramsey's attorney now calls "the greatest urban legend of the
case." In fact, five months after Newsweek disputed Brennan's
story, The Washington Post reported that "from the start,
circumstances surrounding the crime focused suspicion on the
parents….There were no conclusive signs of forced entry at the
home and no footprints in the snow that fell that night."
The importance of the No Footprints story, Brennan contends, is
not whether there actually were footprints or not. Rather, he says,
his report showed the direction in which the police investigation
was heading: By noting a lack of footprints (wrongly or rightly), the
police were clearly considering the potential guilt of the Ramseys.
"What I reported was that police noted in their reports an absence
of footprints," says Brennan. "That's not Charlie Brennan saying,
'Hey, there was an absence of footprints.' I'm saying, 'Hey, the
police put it in their reports.' And they did! They did! That was
But when The New York Times ran its story about Brennan's No
Footprints article, the paper didn't play up the aspect of the
direction of the police investigation. The Times's headline was "No
Sign Of An Intruder At Home Of A Slain Child."
To Glick, Brennan's piece unfairly threw a dark shadow on the
Ramseys and forever cast them as the homicidal parents. Again,
Brennan disagrees: "The public opinion train was way out of the
station by the time that story broke," he asserts.
For many reporters, getting the story out ultimately became more
important than getting it right. And context was hardly the only
element missing. Tabloids such as the Globe, which kept JonBenét
on the front page for three years (and counting), fabricated stories
outright, says Jeffrey Shapiro, a freelancer who exclusively reported
for the Globe from February 28, 1997, to February 11, 1999.
Such a manufactured news bulletin began, Shapiro recalls, over the
weekend of August 22, 1998. Shapiro was facing more pressure
than usual to find a blockbuster headline. Just a few days before,
the National Enquirer had landed the biggest tabloid scoop of
recent months: "911 Call Nails Brother in Murder Cover-Up -- And
It's On Tape," blared the Enquirer.
Shapiro had been a tireless tabloid soldier. He admits that short of
paying his sources and breaking the law, he would do anything to
live up to his e-mail address: jbsavenger. He pestered people he
believed had information; he climbed trees to peek through windows
to watch police investigations of the Ramsey home; he even tried
to get close to the Ramseys' minister by pretending that he wanted
to convert from Judaism to Christianity.
Shapiro defends his tactics even as he betrays his lack of
perspective about how big of a deal the Ramsey case is. "Do you
believe in undercover journalism?" he asks. "If you were a journalist
who knew you had to go undercover to break up a big drug ring
that was the cause of death to innocent people or to even solve
one of the two mysteries -- what is on the missing 18 minutes of
Watergate tapes or about the grassy-knoll assassin who shot
President Kennedy -- would you go undercover? I would. I would in
a second," he says with complete earnestness.
Days after the Enquirer's 911 scoop, Shapiro's editor had a big lead
for him. Late in the night, on August 22, 1998, Shapiro says, one of
his editors, Joe Mullens, called him at home to tell him that Mullens
had found a source with the perfect juicy nugget. The lead, Shapiro
recalls, was that John Ramsey had handed his pilot, Michael
Archuleta, a box potentially filled with evidence, such as the cord
used to strangle JonBenét and the tape found covering her mouth.
(Mullens referred questions on this topic to the Globe's press
representative. So did Tony Frost, the paper's editor. The press
representative declined to comment.)
Shapiro says that when his editor filled him in on the details of the
tip, he questioned the accuracy of the main source, who turned out
to be Archuleta's brother. Apparently, in addition to telling Mullens
about Ramsey's having allegedly dropped off the murder weapon at
his pilot's home, Archuleta's brother gave Mullens another tip that
Shapiro knew was demonstrably incorrect -- the details of a
conversation Shapiro knew could not have taken place.
Mullens defended his source, Shapiro says, telling the young
reporter that although the pilot's brother may have been wrong
about the conversation, he was sure about the box delivery.
Shapiro says he wasn't convinced.
But Mullens assigned Shapiro to look into the tip anyway, and
Shapiro went to stake out Archuleta's house. After waiting for
hours, Shapiro called Mullens to inform him that nothing was
Just wait. The police are on their way over to Archuleta's, Shapiro
says Mullens told him.
How do you know? Shapiro says he asked.
Because we called the police and told them, so we know they'll be
heading over there, Mullens replied, according to Shapiro. Shapiro
kept at his post.
Meanwhile, inside the house, Archuleta got a phone call from a
Globe editor. According to the pilot, the Globe editor said that
Archuleta's brother had told the Globe that John Ramsey had given
Archuleta a box of evidence. Would he care to comment? The Globe
Archuleta told the editor that he had been estranged from his
brother for about five months. "If you're taking information from my
brother, that shows me how stupid you people are," he recalls
having told the Globe editor.
Soon after, Archuleta says, an investigator contacted him to tell
him that law-enforcement officials were going to come out to his
house that night to ask him about information that had just been
called in from the Globe. The pilot says he had told the investigator
that the police knew from extensive prior interviews that he had not
been at the Ramseys' house the morning after the murder.
Archuleta says he asked, "Why do you guys chase your tail around
every time a Globe reporter calls?" The investigator told Archuleta
that they had to follow up every lead, and if the tabloid press wrote
that law enforcement had a tip that they didn't look into right
away, the police department could get fried in the mainstream
papers. (Mark Beckner, chief of the Boulder Police Department,
declined to comment while the Ramsey investigation is still active.)
Sure enough, the police arrived at the pilot's house late in the
night, Shapiro was there to capture the moment, and the Globe had
its headline: "World Exclusive! Cops probe breakthrough charge in
Little Beauty murder case…JonBenét: dad caught hiding key
evidence. Ramsey hid deathbed sheets, girl's nightie and stuffed
animals in box, then gave it to pilot -- says source." The article
included only one word of Archuleta's comments: "inaccurate."
From the beginning, the story was never based on legitimate
sources, according to Shapiro: "They initiated the whole thing…fed
it to the police, got the police to react on it so they could write the
Shapiro has become an interesting sideshow to the JonBenét circus.
At 23, he moved to Boulder just two months after the murder -- a
year out of college with little full-time reporting experience.
Suddenly, he found himself near the center of a media frenzy.
The excitement thrilled Shapiro, but after about a year, he claims,
he began to question the fairness of the Globe's style of journalism.
Most troublesome, asserts Shapiro, was that his editors weren't
interested in any scoop that didn't finger the Ramseys as the killers.
In case he ever needed proof to substantiate his claims that his
bosses at the Globe had questionable ethics, Shapiro began
tape-recording all of his conversations with his editors. He went
public with the tapes on 48 Hours and in Editor & Publisher
In short order, Shapiro went from being a cub tabloid reporter to a
veritable "personality." Shapiro has appeared on Dateline NBC and
has been profiled in Newsweek, which painted him as a
pavement-pounding newshound. "Shapiro's a real journalist, doing a
lot of old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting," Daniel Glick wrote in
Newsweek. "His tactics are hard-charging but legal; 'I may have
made mistakes,' he says, 'but I've never done anything to hurt
anyone….I know in my heart I've made a real contribution to getting
justice for this girl.'"
In addition, Shapiro is a major character in Schiller's book and TV
movie. (Shapiro says he considers himself the "main" character of
the book.) He has also written a first-person account of his tabloid
travails for The Washington Monthly.
The benefits to Shapiro from his involvement in the JonBenét saga
hardly stop with a high public profile. He has pulled off the ultimate
coup in bootstrapping: The former tabloid reporter has landed a gig
with a paragon of journalism -- Time magazine.
Time has not been an important presence on the Ramsey coverage,
and bringing Shapiro on as a stringer to cover all matters JonBenét
gives Time greater access to the sources who have driven the
story. But printing the words of a young man whose only formal
training in journalism has come from editors of a tabloid publication
that runs stories like "Cop Saw Murder in Dad's Eyes" is risky.
On October 25, 1999, 12 days after a grand jury in Boulder
announced that it would not hand up indictments in the Ramsey
case, Time ran an article by Shapiro about Lou Smit, a homicide
investigator who worked on the Ramsey case on behalf of the
Boulder district attorney's office. The piece was cowritten by
Richard Woodbury, but Shapiro conducted the interviews with Smit.
In the piece, Time reported that Smit believed that a man might
have spotted JonBenét as she rode in a convertible in a Boulder
Christmas parade, later broke into her house, sexually assaulted the
child, and then killed her in a panic.
But Smit says that except for his two direct quotes in the article --
explaining that he believes an intruder, not the parents, killed
JonBenét -- Shapiro embellished and distorted his comments. "It's
not right at all," Smit says of Shapiro's Time piece. Shapiro defends
his work. "I based that story on a dozen lengthy conversations with
Smit. I felt and still feel to this day that it's a very accurate
representation of what he has said to me," he says. (Walter
Isaacson, Time's managing editor, did not return phone calls
seeking comment. Time's news director, Marguerite Michaels,
declined to comment, because, she says, Smit has not complained
to the magazine.)
Page 1 2 3 4 5 6
THE RAMSEYS ARE FAIR GAME
Time is by no means the only mainstream media organization that
has looked to those who employ tabloid tactics to get the goods.
Outlets such as Dateline NBC and The New York Times have turned
to a Boulder gadfly named Frank Coffman to keep them competitive
in their JonBenét coverage.
Coffman, 52, is something of a town crier in the saga. A resident of
Boulder for more than 20 years, he once lived a quiet life making
Halloween masks and writing occasional columns for a Boulder
weekly newspaper. But that was before his town's serenity was
rocked by the murder of a little girl. As an accident of proximity,
Coffman says, he became entangled in the case.
On December 11, 1998, in his downtown Boulder apartment, which
looks like a graduate student's crash pad, Coffman's phone rang.
John Ramsey's standing on a street corner by your apartment right
now! cried the caller.
Coffman took the cue: He snatched a camera and dashed
out the door. Coffman saw Ramsey standing on the street
corner with his son, a friend, and one of Ramsey's lawyers; with his
heart pounding, Coffman raised his camera, aimed, and fired.
Ramsey wasn't pleased to see Coffman with his camera hoisted. "He
attacked me," Coffman says, claiming that Ramsey lunged at him
and grabbed his jacket before one of Ramsey's attorneys, Michael
Bynum, stopped the potential brawl. (Bynum did not return phone
calls seeking comment.)
"I was not stalking him," Coffman says without being asked. Still, he
adds, it's "kind of weird to take a picture of somebody like that. I
wouldn't do it to anybody else...but John and Patsy Ramsey are fair
Despite the scuffle, Coffman snapped a few shots, though the
camera's flash didn't go off for the one picture that captured
Ramsey allegedly lunging at Coffman. "If that flash had gone off,
that would have been a fabulous picture," says Coffman. "It would
have made him look so damn guilty. Because people would have
said, 'Ah-hah! Here he is. The killer,' " Coffman purrs, adding, "and I
don't know that Ramsey killed anybody."
But whether Ramsey killed anyone matters little when you've got an
exclusive picture. Coffman says the incident surrounding his
photography was reported in an Internet chat room and that once
the word was out that he had a few photos of John Ramsey, his
phone was ringing like a car alarm in New York City. "The New York
Times called me," he says. "I didn't try to sell it, but they said,
Look, we want to buy this, we want to publish it, so I said, Okay.
The Times ran one of Coffman's pictures on December 16, 1998,
along with an item that described the alleged tussle with Ramsey.
Coffman says he made $150 from the sale of the photo. (In addition
to getting work from the Times, Coffman says, he has peeped
through the windows of the Ramseys' former home in Boulder, taken
photos, and sold them to Schiller's movie production team. The
photos helped the producers properly re-create the crime scene.)
That the Times considers it newsworthy that a "stalkerazzi"
photographer claims to have had his collar grabbed by John Ramsey
indicates how far even the most legitimate of news outlets have
gone for a JonBenét story. Asked about the paparazzi-like photo,
Times deputy picture editor Mike Smith said, "We don't encourage
or look for that kind of work."
Coffman says he is not a profiteer seeking to make hard cash off
the death of a kid. "I never tried to make money on the Ramsey
case," says Coffman. "I never asked anyone to send me
money….They just spontaneously—all these people who were so
desperate to get information and photographs and whatever on the
Coffman admits that he now accepts retainers from various media
outlets in case he finds himself in possession of information they
want, but won't say which outlets. "I'd rather retain my freelance
independent status," he reasons.
Page 1 2 3 4 5 6
GETTING IN ON THE ACTION
There is no question in radio-talk-show host Peter Boyles's mind
that John and Patsy Ramsey were involved in the murder. Boyles
doesn't know what happened to JonBenét, but what he knows is of
little importance. That's because Boyles is a part of the "opinion
press." On Denver's KHOW-AM, Boyles broadcasts his beliefs nearly
every chance he gets. And why shouldn't he? Since JonBenét died,
Boyles's ratings have skyrocketed. In the fall of 1996, Boyles had a
4.9 percent share of the morning audience. In fall 1997, that
number jumped 31 percent, to 7.1 percent, a share he maintained
through the fall of 1998.
Because of the thirst of the national media to keep the JonBenét
mill churning, Boyles doesn't have to reserve his comments for his
morning show's local audience. When he wants a little national
media attention, he comes up with all kinds of clever ways to get it.
Take the war of the newspaper ads.
During the last week of July and the first week of August 1997,
John and Patsy Ramsey published two full-page advertisements in
the Boulder Daily Camera seeking public help infinding the killer of
After reading the Ramseys' first plea, Boyles took action. For
$3,100, he placed his own ad, which ran in the Daily Camera the
same day as the Ramseys' second ad was printed. Titled "An Open
Letter to John & Patsy Ramsey," it outlined Boyles's reasons for
thinking the Ramseys are guilty. In part, he wrote, "you are
displaying certain characteristics that are totally opposite those of
most victim parents….Fred Goldman's behavior exemplifies the true
victim parent of a child who has been murdered. You, on the other
hand, have led Colorado and the nation on a seven month, low
speed, white Bronco chase."
The payoff? In the two days after Boyles's letter ran, he appeared
on Dateline NBC, Rivera Live, and Good Morning America to discuss
it. Two CBS Sunday night news programs and CBS Morning News
aired reports about Boyles and his missive.
Boyles says he talks about the case as frequently and as
passionately as he does so that JonBenét will not have died in vain.
More than three years into the case, Boyles still covers JonBenét
regularly. He has even helped produce a CD of parody songs with
titles such as "Big Bad John [Ramsey]."
Still, Boyles is just a small part of the Lynch the Ramseys Brigade.
Nationally, Geraldo Rivera is similarly committed to giving airtime to
those who imply guilt on the part of the Ramseys. On November 24,
1997, Rivera stood before the audience of what was then his
nationally syndicated broadcast show (not to be confused with his
CNBC talk show), tie adjusted, mustache groomed. "It is entirely
possible," Rivera said ominously, "that this murder mystery will never
be solved, and that no one will ever be tried for the terrible crime
committed against that lovely child—except for today, except for
the mock trial we are about to stage for you right here in our
Rivera then gave new meaning to the cliché "trial by media." He
presented a two-part mock trial of John and Patsy Ramsey. (Rivera
declined to comment for this story.)
The trial's "witnesses" for the prosecution included Tony Frost, the
editor of the Globe; Cindy Adams, the New York Post's gossip
columnist who was introduced by the prosecutor as "the world's
greatest authority on everything"; a former Miss America; and Craig
Silverman, a Denver attorney with no relation to the Ramsey case.
Most of the "testimony" came in the form of clips from past shows.
Highlights from these "witnesses" included a statement from Adams
in which she said, "Bit by bit, inch by inch, so slowly that you can't
see it, it is closing around Patsy….Everything is pointing to Patsy."
Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, a former Miss America and alleged victim
of child abuse and incest, "testified" that because her own mother
had forced the pageant world upon her, she believes the Ramseys
did the same to JonBenét.
Silverman, the Denver lawyer, "testified" that he wonders whether
Patsy killed her daughter in a religious sacrifice. Silverman says his
so-called testimony was actually an outtake from a different Rivera
appearance during which he floated the religious sacrifice theory.
He had no idea Rivera was going to use his comments as part of a
mock trial until he turned on the TV and saw it himself.
A former Denver prosecutor, Silverman is a self-styled pundit and
paid source for the Globe tabloid, according to Jeffrey Shapiro, the
former Globe scribe. Silverman confirms he is on the tabloid's
payroll. "I will take their money when they offer it but only on the
condition that they show me my quotes ahead of time," he says,
but later adds, "the vast majority of my work has gone
uncompensated." Silverman also waxes analytical for The New York
Times, Good Morning America, Inside Edition, Today, Extra, and Fox
The "defense," represented by Rivera perennial Linda Kenney, a New
Jersey attorney, called friends and relatives of the Ramseys, who
said they knew the Ramseys could not have killed their daughter.
A jury made up of six volunteers found the Ramseys liable for the
wrongful death of JonBenét. Rivera's studio audience hollered in
Two weeks later, it was reported that NBC News hired Rivera as a
full-time employee for $30 million over six years. If NBC hoped to
capitalize on Rivera's proven ability to keep the JonBenét coverage
going, the news organization got its money's worth. Since going
legit full-time on CNBC, Rivera has done about 50 JonBenét
segments on Rivera Live.
ALL THE NEWS THAT'S LEAKED INTO PRINT
Chuck Green is a 32-year veteran of The Denver Post and an
award-winning journalist. Green believes that "the evidence points
to the Ramseys' being involved in their daughter's death," and he
speaks with a preacher's cadence as he makes his argument that a
rich couple has gotten away with murder.
As with Boyles, what Green believes -- not what he knows --
counts, because he writes an opinion column for the Post four times
a week. Green says he has devoted at least 80 columns to the
Ramseys. He admits that's a lot of ink for one murder case but says
that morally he has no choice as long as JonBenét's killer walks free.
"The system has failed JonBenét," he says. "The system will fail and
fail and fail other kids as long as nobody cares how the system
Green's not just a talking head, though; he claims to have inside
"law enforcement" sources. And he freely admits to having served
as a conduit for their leaks.
Journalists on this story have covered the "breaking news" by
broadcasting and printing the spin fed to them by sources, Green
contends. But the longtime newspaperman is hardly knocking himself
and his colleagues for having done so. "I don't care if you're
covering city hall or a sports team....You report the spin that your
best sources give you and by reporting that spin you get access to
that source," says Green. A consulting contract with NBC has
helped Green ensure that his brand of reporting isn't limited to a
local audience. He has made regular star turns on Today.
"That's how journalism works," Green continues. "You report the
spin that your best sources feed you and that's how you keep them
But what about verifying the spin before publishing it as fact? "You
try, but you usually can't," he says. "You verify with the guy who's
sitting at the next desk to the guy who's giving you the information
in the first place. And they're usually working on the same team."
Certainly, reporting often starts with a source's telling a reporter
what that source would like to see in the paper the next day. But
the job of a journalist usually involves checking the information,
especially if the leak comes from a police or prosecution source
hoping to test a theory or create the impression that progress is
being made on a case. Otherwise, a story may be technically
correct -- in that the police do believe or suspect such and such --
but contextually wrong or completely unfair, as is likely with
Footprints In The Snow and the tabloid revelation about John
But anyone who actually thinks that such verification takes place,
Green claims, lives in a dream world. The onus is on the consumer,
Green says, to decide if he trusts the reporter. "I think this system
serves the public," he says.
Ridiculous, answers University of Colorado journalism professor
Michael Tracey, who coproduced a documentary that attacked the
media's coverage of the case. "Boulder law enforcement put a ring
in Chuck Green's nose and led him around on a leash," Tracey says.
"Law enforcement used the media to build a case that law
enforcement knew it couldn't construct in court. The role of the
journalist is to assume you're being used, assume you're being lied
to, and to double-check."
That has been an important rule in the Ramsey coverage, says
Carol McKinley. Having reported the saga from the onset -- first for
Denver radio's KOA-AM before making the considerable leap from AM
radio to Fox News Channel -- McKinley had been fed a fair share of
leaks. Back in late 1997, a Ramsey spokesman leaked her some
potential news over lunch.
"There was something in the grass," McKinley recalls the spokesman
telling her. "A cord? Some tape? A key?" McKinley says she asked.
He wouldn't say, but he implied the news would prove that an
intruder had been outside the Ramsey home the night of the
murder. This could be a blockbuster, McKinley says the spokesman
After lunch, McKinley returned to her office, got on the phone, and
learned that the "something" found in the grass was a kneeprint.
A kneeprint? she thought. What in the world does that mean?
She called a forensic investigator, who, McKinley says, shared her
skepticism. "'A kneeprint? So what?'" McKinley says the expert told
her, who added that without some other indentation nearby -- like
a footprint or toeprint -- such evidence would likely be
He told her that there was no significance in a kneeprint in the
grass. So she didn't broadcast it.
Such leaks -- and people like Green, who say they let them into the
public domain without verifying them -- have led to the appearance
(if not the reality) of "camps" within the Ramsey case: polarized
groups of journalists whose work leans toward insinuating either the
guilt or innocence of John and/or Patsy Ramsey. "It's defined by
who talks to whom and who doesn't talk to whom," says
Newsweek's Glick. "A lot of reporters were happy to have sources in
one camp and stopped trying to get sources in other camps."
Glick spent six years in Newsweek's Washington, D.C., bureau, and
he thinks the reporting of the Ramsey case mirrors Washington
coverage in terms of close and longstanding journalistic
relationships between specific political sources and reporters. "It's
like the old Washington game," he says. "Almost everyone knew
where these friendships were. It's not dissimilar in this situation."
Glick himself has been accused of being part of the pro-Ramsey
camp. In fact, no national media outlet that runs news reports has
been as castigated as much as Newsweek for this type of camp
journalism. Consistently, Newsweek's Ramsey stories -- usually
written and reported by Glick and Keene-Osborn -- have espoused
a Ramsey-favorable point of view. Most of Glick and Keene-Osborn's
"pro-Ramsey" coverage for Newsweek has criticized both the case
that the police say they have against the Ramseys -- and the
press's often sensationalized representation of that case -- rather
than promoting a belief in the Ramseys' guilt or innocence.
The Newsweek scribes have taken their reporting multimedia; both
acted as associate producers on professor Michael Tracey's
British-funded documentary, which maintained that the Ramseys
had been wrongly tried and convicted by the American lynch-mob
The documentary offers what no nonfiction piece at the time could:
John and Patsy Ramsey appearing on camera to answer questions
about the case and the media's behavior. Newsweek got exclusive
rights to the interview and, using outtakes from that on-camera
exchange, quoted the Ramseys in a July 13, 1998, article that
chastised Boulder's law-enforcement community. The documentary
has aired four times so far in the United States on A & E. Glick and
Keene-Osborn split half the fee from the U.S. television rights.
Ramsey critics such as Boyles and Green have denounced the
documentary as pure spin. Green labels it an "infomercial"; Boyles
prefers "crockumentary." They insist that Newsweek and the
Ramseys have a symbiotic relationship: Glick and Keene-Osborn get
their Ramsey-fed exclusives and the Ramseys get favorable
To Glick, that kind of criticism shows the inherent flaw of the
Ramsey coverage. He says he got access to the Ramseys not
because of favorable coverage but because the Ramseys trusted he
would not merely follow the spin of his best law-enforcement
sources. He says he got access to the Ramseys because they saw
that he was "questioning the orthodoxy" and "looking critically" at
what law-enforcement sources were leaking. And Glick says that he
became skeptical of the police investigation long before he had any
access to the Ramseys. Keene-Osborn adds, "During the entire
case, most of my sources were within the prosecution. To have
labeled me as any kind of Ramsey pawn is laughable."
That Green and Boyles criticize Glick for maintaining a
journalist-source relationship with the Ramseys astounds him. "What
journalist in the country would say no to three days of on-camera,
on-the-record interviews" with the Ramseys? he asks. "If that
makes me pro-Ramsey, so be it."
Tracey defends the film against cries of "advocacy journalism" with
equal ferocity. "What it was advocating is not being a megaphone
for spin, and double-checking leaks from sources," Tracey howls. "If
that's advocacy journalism, then, fine."
THE RAMSEYS TAKE A TURN
There are two others with a story to tell who have decided to try
to sell it: John and Patsy Ramsey.
In April, the two will publish their memoir of the events of the last
three years, called Death of Innocence. The Ramseys have chosen
a Christian publisher in Nashville to bring their story public.
Once the grand jury announced it would not indict the Ramseys and
word spread that the couple planned to pen a memoir, the media
vultures began circling for an exclusive interview. "We've received
calls from just about every national show," says the book's
publisher, Rolf Zettersten, "from 20/20 to Dateline NBC, to 48 Hours
and all the morning shows….There's something of a frenzy to get
the interview." One weekly newsmagazine, one monthly magazine,
one nightly television newsmagazine, and one morning show,
Zettersten adds, will probably be awarded coveted Ramsey
Death of Innocence will likely be a bonanza. And so the most obvious
questions: Are the Ramseys profiteering? Are they just two
more people latching on to JonBenét, Inc.?
No, says the Ramseys' libel attorney, L. Lin Wood (who is
representing the Ramseys in a suit against the Star tabloid). He
says that "the nightmare of the past three years has literally
depleted this family's life savings, and they are in tremendous debt
for attorneys' fees and other expenses related to the criminal
investigation." Proceeds from the book, says Wood, will pay off
those debts. Any profit beyond that will go to the JonBenét Ramsey
Children's Foundation, which donates money to children's spirituality
The idea that a reporter would ask about profiteering nudges the
soft-spoken John Ramsey into a passionate response. "A horrible
story has been told about my daughter and my family. And I think
we have the right to tell our side without being edited or cut down
to a sound bite," says Ramsey. "We are not profiting from this. In
fact, I find that repugnant. How dare the media criticize us for
profiteering? There's so much hypocrisy."