Fake News and Phantom Legs

Lots of folks are talking about fake news and how to discern the difference between real and not-so-true reports. Amid all the discussion I can’t stop thinking about Bill Genevose. He is the brother of the deceased Kitty Genovese, the woman whose murder in 1964 turned into a parable of urban life and crime:

Before we had the Internet to blame for everything, news of the brutal murder of 28-year-old bar manager Kitty Genovese went wide as a parable of urban indifference. Genovese was far from the only New Yorker to die on the street in 1964. Nor was she the only woman Winston Moseley, a married father of two, admitted killing. By his own chilling account, Moseley drew no distinction between murder and the routine burglary by which he supplemented his income. The other victims languished in obscurity, while 50 years on, the meaning of Genovese’s murder still fuels a gallery of books, movies and television shows, up to and including a recent episode of Girls. All this — according to a new documentary by Kitty’s younger brother Bill Genovese with filmmaker James Solomon — because of an influential article in the New York Times that attributed her late-night death on a quiet street in Queens to the inaction of 38 witnesses who heard her screams twice (Moseley returned to stab her a second time) and allegedly failed to call the police or rush to her rescue.

The NPR story about Genovese’s death goes on to make the astute point that all news comes with spin that takes truth in the direction of fake:

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote. Genovese likens his sister’s death to a Rorschach test, and at its sharpest, The Witness is a careful inquiry into the tricks memory plays, and into how ambiguous events get reshaped into narratives that fit individual and collective needs. Almost everyone Genovese interviewed — from surviving witnesses and their children, the prosecutor and judge in the case, police, journalists, and A.M. Rosenthal, the Times editor who handled the story in 1964 and wrote the book Thirty-Eight Witnesses about the case — has, however unconsciously, polished their own version of the truth. Some of the testimonies are sober and corrective, some defensive, others wacky or poignant or both. One witness’ son argues that most of the neighbors were Holocaust survivors and “therefore” would be reluctant to contact authorities. Moseley himself, who died in prison in March of this year, would not allow Genovese to visit him in prison, but wrote him a rambling, outlandish account. The film shows commendable compassion for Moseley’s anguished son, the Rev. Steven Moseley, whose pitifully bizarre contextualization of the murder shows that the damage it did went far beyond Kitty and her family.

The documentary that Bill Genovese made about his sister complicates the legend that this murder created. The mainstream media had a narrative and they kept telling it. It became so convincing about the indifference of Americans to crime that Bill Genovese himself volunteered to serve in Vietnam. He wasn’t going to be guilty of the sort of social character than abandoned his sister. And what happened? On a patrol Bill stepped on a mine and lost both his legs.

Which brings us to Bill Genovese, who as executive producer and narrator is both the film’s subject and its chief interpreter. Having lost both his legs in Vietnam, the handsome Italian-American is a visually dramatic figure, a sleuth in a wheelchair as he follows leads. Kitty’s death moved him, he says, to enlist in the Marines, and his continuing obsession with her murder (his siblings appear briefly, cooperative but baffled by a mystery they no longer seek to solve) stems from a desire to know that he “didn’t lose [his] legs for nothing.” There’s little reason to doubt their brother’s sincerity, yet his declared motives and his quest for “closure” — a glib buzzword that’s overdue for retirement — seem at once too tidy and a causal stretch.

Fake news or not, you should always take even the real news with a grain or two of salt.

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8 thoughts on “Fake News and Phantom Legs

  1. ” Fake news or not, you should always take even the real news with a grain or two of salt.”

    I’m on a low sodium diet, so I guess that means no news for me…it’s bad for my blood pressure.

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  2. Yes all news and all that is written here has spin. That is why it is important to be exposed to multiple sources. The problem some who want to read about things have with that is that they are passive authoritarians and thus they restrict their sources for news and discussion about issues.

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  3. So little of news is actionable as to relegate it to the category of entertainment. But if you prove yourself as untrustworthy, don’t blame the consumer for their indifference and disbelief.

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  4. Those were the fake news days:

    They call themselves “fact checkers,” and with the name comes a veneer of objectivity doubling as a license to go after any remark by a public figure they find disagreeable for any reason. Just look at the Associated Press to understand how the scheme works. The venerable wire service’s recent “fact check” of statements made at the November 12 GOP presidential candidates’ foreign policy debate was a doozy. Throwing no less than seven reporters at the effort, the piece came up with some unusual examples of what it means to correct verifiable truths.

    On Iran, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney suggested that the U.S. government should make it “very clear that the United States of America is willing, in the final analysis, if necessary, to take military action to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.”

    Little did Romney realize that the AP is the final arbiter of America’s tactical military capabilities and can say with certainty that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program should not be attempted. “The U.S. certainly has military force readily at hand to destroy Iran’s known nuclear development sites in short order. This is highly unlikely, however, because of the strategic calculation that an attack would be counterproductive and ultimately ineffective, spawning retaliation against U.S. allies and forces in the region, and merely delaying eventual nuclear weapons development.”

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  5. There isn’t another answer besides ‘delaying eventual nuclear weapons development’. It’s a tactic you have to keep recycling. If philosophy can’t construct a viable universal(abstraction) what/who in the world thought you could construct a ‘forever, holistic’ foreign policy? You win the day, position yourself to win tomorrow and roll with the contignencies.

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  6. News or Narrative?

    The trouble I have with complaints about Obama’s supposed “inaction” overseas is that he has been among the most activist foreign policy presidents of my lifetime. He has presided over eight continuous years of foreign wars, two of which he started on his own authority without a Congressional debate or vote, and the U.S. routinely carries out strikes in numerous countries around the world. If he weren’t Bush’s successor, Obama would be correctly perceived as having a remarkably militarized and intrusive foreign policy that no impartial observer would dream of describing as inactive. He, some of his supporters, and many of his critics have effectively worked together to create the fiction that he is a “reluctant warrior,” but the reality is that he is responsible for launching two wars (Libya and war on ISIS), escalating a third (Afghanistan), supporting a fourth (Yemen), and backing at least one armed rebellion aimed at regime change (Syria). No one can credibly call this a foreign policy of inaction or reluctance to act, and yet we hear this claim all the time.

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