The Patron Saint of Celebrity Crime Casualties

The Patron Saint of Celebrity Crime Casualties July 7, 2011

A word to the wise: don’t ask NCR’s Michael Sean Winters if he’s been keeping up with the Casey Anthony case. He’ll probably tell you something along these lines:

I refused to watch a single moment of the Casey Anthony trial. I refused to watch a single news story about the trial. This took some doing and I had to replace the battery in my television clicker sooner than anticipated. The story was ubiquitous.

I refused to engage it for the same reason I would have refused to attend a gladiator fight had I lived two thousand years ago. In America today, the courtroom has replaced the ampitheater, but the lust for gruesomeness is the same. Shame on us.

To those of you — and I know you’re out there — who are planning to show up at his place with pliers and a blow torch, and try to make him watch, all I can say is, lots of luck.

I’ve never had any patience for media personalities who complain about the media. No matter how much any of us moralizes about the 24-hour news cycle, the fact is, we all play along — some more willingly, some less so. And we all benefit — again, on a sliding scale. More viewers for Fox means more clicks for me, and even for Michael Sean Winters. A hater’s click counts the same as a fan’s, after all.

But much more basically, pretending there’s no good at all in the dissemination of news is just…mindless. Yes, coverage of sensitive subjects can leave a lot to be desired — thoughtful angles get overlooked, good taste is routinely violated. But still, the final takeaway is left to the consumer. Dopey people will come away thinking dopey thoughts, but intelligent people will find an intelligent takeaway — and there’s always one to be found.

As an object lesson in how tabloid journalism can make a positive difference in spite of itself, consider the case of St. Maria Goretti, whose feast day was yesterday. With the possible exception of Josemaria Escriva, she’s the Church’s most controversial saint — quite a feather for a laconic 12-year-old to wear in her cap. It’s tempting to blame — or credit — her hagiographers, who have steeped her story in such thick schmaltz that it reads like a Kenny Rogers ballad set to a tarantella. But really, the poor hacks are only following the example set by the first responders — the Italian police reporters of the nineteen-oughts.

Italian newspapers have never been famous for their subtlety. The worst of them — the equivalents of the Murdoch rags — feature a section called the cronica nera, or black chronicle. It’s basically a clearing house for the pulpiest news around, the place where the public first met Toto Riina and Amanda Knox, and the victims of any number of gruesome Vespa mishaps. This is where news of Maria Goretti’s murder first turned up, and the tone would have made Westbrook Pegler blush. In one early story, the killer is described as a “human beast” and a “filthy satyr” — and that’s just in one paragraph.

Doubtless, much of the initial interest was strictly prurient. “I hope they hang the testa di minghia, and I hope I get to watch!” would have been among the more delicately nuanced reactions. But then the oddest thing happened: people stayed interested. Many of those who were simply enjoying a grisly story started proclaiming the sanctity of the victim.

Of course, it would be naïve to pretend that this, too, is anything but par for the course. The press beatifies crime and disaster victims on a regular basis. It’s good for business, particularly when the victim is female, and when the crime or disaster carries sexual overtones. In Black Dahlia, James Ellroy has one detective advise another to keep a lid on a murder victim’s wanton past. Depicting the dead girl as innocent will sell more papers — and win more publicity for the DA.

But this kind of canonization tends to expire around the time the jury convicts the bad guy. By our standards, the conviction of Goretti’s killer was an express-lane job; a little over three months after the murder, he was packed off to an fittingly hellish prison in Sicily. Still, interest in the victim persisted — in fact, grew. Two whole years after her death, the tabloid Il Messagero paid to have Goretti’s body moved from a pauper’s grave to a marble tomb. It was the publishers’ way of saying thanks, and if it was in any way proportional to the favor bestowed, the favor must have been enormous. Marble doesn’t grow on trees — not even in Italy.

It should have faded away like any other boy-shivs-girl story. The murder rate in early 20th-century Italy was horrific. Despite — or perhaps because of — the absence of any organized criminal brotherhood, like the Camorra or ‘Ndrangheta, the Agro Pontino, where the principal players had lived, was particularly violent. Sadly, attempted rapes weren’t big news, either. The place couldn’t be mistaken for Versailles; among the lesser sort, “I like you; come to bed with me — or else” was fairly close to standard flirtation. Certainly none of the surviving Gorettis had the savvy to milk the story; in style and temperament, Assunta, the dead girl’s mother, seems to have been a close match for David Sedaris’ grandmother — not great interview fodder.

Yet, as Kathleen Norris points out, “there was something in the child’s recounting of the attack, and in her mother’s grief, that compelled the neighbors, the police, the nurses to keep retelling the story.” And, I would add, to suffer it to be told them by the press. Thirty years after the murder, enough buzz remained that the Passionists were able to reinvigorate public interest in Goretti’s cause for sainthood. When sainthood came, it looked like progress — a rare tip of the mitre to an extremely poor layperson who never saw an apparition. Today, for reasons I am way too chicken to get into, even speaking the name “Maria Goretti” can spark a debate. I myself might never have heard of her if my mother hadn’t blamed her for ruining her childhood.

There are nuggets of wisdom — or, at any rate, fascinating points of contention — in any trashy news story. When I watched police beating Rodney King for the eleven or twelve thousandth time, it finally dawned on me that, yes, racial bias might still exist in this country. (Laugh if you like; growing up a Manhattan preppie, I thought racism was something Al Sharpton made up.) Cowering in the bubble of my male consciousness, I’d never even heard of post-partum depression before the Andrea Yates case. Thanks to Fox’s coverage of Natalee Holloway, I know never to trust a guy with a name like “Joran.”

What have I learned from following Casey Anthony’s trial? Off the cuff, I’d take it as a reminder that our country’s legal system was founded on the premise that it’s better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to hang. Apparently, the rule applies to women, too. That means we’ve got nine more of these things to go. Hang in there, Michael Sean.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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