AND NOW YOU KNOW…THE REST OF THE STORY: “Queens Neighborhood Still Haunted by Kitty Genovese’s Murder,” the New York Times noted on Wednesday, following up on the the prison death of Genovese’s murderer at age 81 late last month.
But doing a CTL-F on the word “Rosenthal” on the Times’ article brings up zero returns, as the Gray Lady continues to perpetuate a classic media myth* of their own creation, which did enormous long-term damage to the reputation of the people of Kew Gardens in Queens. Abe Rosenthal was the Times’ city editor at the time of the Genovese murder in 1964, on his way to becoming the paper’s longtime executive editor. A New York magazine article this week explains his role in “How the False Story of Kitty Genovese’s Murder Went Viral:”
As Nicholas Lemann wrote in The New Yorker in 2014, ten days after Genovese’s murder, which had initially gotten only a brief squib in the Times during a year which saw 636 murders in New York, [then-NYPD police chief Michael Murphy and Rosenthal] had lunch. “Murphy spent most of the lunch talking about how worried he was that the civil-rights movement, which was at its peak, would set off racial violence in New York,” wrote Lemann, but the conversation eventually shifted, through happenstance, to the recent murder of a woman named Kitty Genovese. Murphy told Rosenthal there had been 38 eyewitnesses: “Over a grisly half hour of stabbing and screaming, Murphy said, none of them had called the police. Rosenthal assigned a reporter named Martin Gansberg to pursue the story from that angle.”
As a result of Gansberg’s subsequent, less-than-skeptical article — and, perhaps as important, a follow-up story which ran the next day in which “a procession of experts offered explanations of what had happened, or said that it was inexplicable” — the narrative took hold and the case eventually found its way into psychology textbooks. As Lemann writes, “Stories like that of the silent witnesses to Genovese’s murder represent the real danger zone in journalism, because they blend the power of instinct — which is about whether something feels true, not about whether it is true — with the respectable sheen of social science.”
Or as James Lileks wrote a couple of years ago:
Speaking of New York: the Post revisits the infamous case of Kitty Genovese. If you recall, the New York Times “reported that 38 of her neighbors had seen the attack and watched it unfold without calling for help.” Word spread:
The Times piece was followed by a story in Life magazine, and the narrative spread throughout the world, running in newspapers from Russia and Japan to the Middle East. New York became internationally infamous as a city filled with thoughtless people who didn’t care about one another; where people could watch their neighbors get stabbed on the street without lifting a finger to help, leaving them to die instead in a pool of their own blood.
Too bad it wasn’t true, as the piece reminds us. But it confirmed what people wanted to believe about other people — or at least what some people at the NYT wanted to believe.
The urban legend that no one responded to Genovese’s murder spread largely because the Times botched the initial reporting of her grisly death to slant the article against the working class citizens of Queens. But then, as Fred Siegel wrote at the start of his 2014 history of “Progressivism” in America, The Revolt Against the Masses, “The best short credo of liberalism came from the pen of the once canonical left-wing literary historian Vernon Parrington in the late 1920s. ‘Rid society of the dictatorship of the middle class.’” The Gray Lady, not least of which Abe Rosenthal, who helped drive the false story of Genovese’s heartless neighbors viral on his way to becoming a fixture at the paper until his retirement in 1999, internalized that motto a long time ago, indeed.
* Media Myth Alert is the name of longtime journalist W. Joseph Campbell’s blog, where he debunks numerous urban legends created in self-serving fashion over the decades by the MSM.