Yesterday evening, two children from my neighborhood were fatally stabbed, allegedly by their Nanny, who then appeared to try to take her own life.
It is a horrific story. Beyond imaginings. To talk about how upsetting it is — well, what is there to say? So I won’t talk about that beyond saying that I feel for those parents, for their families and friends, I cannot imagine their grief.
What I’d like to talk about instead is the media coverage. Of course it’s sensationalistic. Of course it feels sordid when reporters bombard neighbors, people who didn’t even know the family, with questions about the couple and their kids. I’m used to that. What bothers me is that almost without exception, every report about the murder — the murder of two small children — included a reference to the family’s social status.
The first sentence in the NY Times front page article mentioned the “luxury building” the family lives in, as did the articles in the Washington Post, the NY Post, and the Huffington Post. The NY Daily News went so far as to put the word “posh” in the headline, “luxury” in the first sentence, and later in the article, to speculate on the amount the couple must pay in rent. The only major news outlet that didn’t mention luxury was USA Today. Sad, that what’s arguably the least well-respected Newspaper in the country was the only one respectably staying away from discussing the family’s income.
I get it. Crimes like this are “not supposed to happen” in posh, luxury, neighborhoods. “Harvard grads” (another phrase used by almost every media outlet), aren’t “supposed” to be touched by grisly murders. But I think it goes beyond that. I think there’s Schadenfreude in this insistence on mentioning the family’s supposed wealth. (For the record, the late 6 year-old went to a local Public School.) I think along with the legitimate need to identify the neighborhood and the people involved, there is a certain glee in the revelation that “even rich people” can be touched by violence. Maybe there’s a sense of comeuppance. Somehow, portraying the family as wealthy makes the story more…titillating. And that’s just disgusting.
Being rich is admired in this country: Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Donald Trump. But in an election season where one candidate has been vilified for his financial success, where both candidates’ wives made a point of referencing their husbands’ humbler beginnings during their convention speeches, it’s not hard to see that wealth is also resented. Why? Because having less makes you more virtuous? Because having more is tantamount to being evil?
Being wealthy doesn’t mean you deserve to be a crime victim any more than being poor does.
And what about the crimes in less affluent neighborhoods? Though violent crime is down to historically low rates throughout the country, and especially in NYC, the highest concentration of violent crime is still in our poorer neighborhoods. But I’ve never seen a headline “Homicide in Low Income Building.” Sometimes they’ll say the crime was in a Housing Project — a synonym for low-income housing. But never have I read a report of a crime in a low-income NYC neighborhood where they mentioned where the victim’s parents went to school, where they worked, or how much their rent might be.
When news reports make so much of the victims situation, it always feels to me like a victimization in itself. Why does it matter that the murdered children’s father went to Harvard? Does that make his loss worse, or better, more deserving of our sympathy, or less? And, I wonder, how do people in lower-income communities feel when a story like this gets so much coverage, while crimes in their neighborhood are historically under-reported, and under-reported on? Are their losses less significant because they pay lower rent? Because they didn’t go to an Ivy League school?
Being a poor victim of crime doesn’t make you any less worthy of sympathy…and media coverage…than being a wealthier one.
In the best of all possible worlds, the media would leave this family alone. They would not appear on the Today Show, shell-shocked and newly coiffed, to parade their misery to an audience of voyeurs. Their building would not be besieged by news trucks and satellites. They would be left alone to heal, to grieve, to begin the unimaginable task of moving on, of taking care of their surviving child.
Yes, this is news. Yes, this is horrible — unimaginable. And I understand that the News business is a business. Sensational stories sell. I get it. Years ago, I worked at A Current Affair, the granddaddy of sensationalistic TV. But I quit that job because it made me feel dirty.
“Well,” said my executive producer, “You’ve got to eat.”
“I’m not that hungry” I said.
Two children have been murdered. One family has been destroyed. That’s the story. Not their rent, the socio-economic status, their college degrees. Are we so hungry for sensationalism that we’re forgetting what really matters?