March 13, 1964—The rape and murder of 28-year-old Queens bar manager Kitty Genovese around 3 in the morning might have become one more crime statistic in a New York becoming full of them, except that nearly two weeks later, The New York Times gave its imprimatur to a story claiming that the stabbing had not only occurred within yards of her Kew Gardens apartment, but within full view of 38 neighbors who did nothing while it occurred. More than 40 years would pass, with the incident entering psychology, sociology, urban-affairs and criminal-justice texts, before it was established that the basic outlines of this paradigmatic tale of mass urban indifference were, fundamentally, mythical.
How inaccurate was the front-page story? One area resident who made it his business to deconstruct the tale has claimed that the article contained six errors in its first two paragraphs.
(Not much has changed over the years, I’m afraid. About 15 years ago, perusing a Times article about my industry, I counted three mistakes in two sentences. To my knowledge, none were ever corrected.)
The fact that the piece came to be written and the myth perpetrated owes much to a lunch involving the paper’s A.M. Rosenthal and police commissioner Michael Murphy. Even in his current post as metropolitan editor, Rosenthal was exerting enormous, even questionable, influence on The Gray Lady’s coverage—forbidding, for instance, any mentions of Malcolm X, according to colleague Harrison Salisbury. At the end of the decade, he would begin a 17-year reign as executive editor that might be likened to a journalistic tyranny, marked by rages and sycophancy. Successor Max Frankel was given a telling mandate upon taking over: "Make the newsroom a happy place again."
At the March 1964 lunch, Rosenthal quizzed Murphy about why two men had confessed to the same recent murder. Murphy let him in on another unusual “fact”: one of the two confessed killers, 29-year-old computer punch-card operator Winston Moseley, had participated in another crime, attacking Genovese three times, with not one of her neighbors phoning the police over a half hour of stabbing and screaming.
While the Times had mentioned the murder already in a news brief, Rosenthal now assigned it to a reporter who followed the see-no-evil-bystanders approach favored by his boss, best stated in its lead: "For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens." The paper’s longstanding disdain for tabloid-style sensationalizing of crime furnished even more credibility to the astonishing story it covered now.
One has to wonder why Rosenthal was so quick to credit Murphy’s explanation. It amounted to believing not only that not a single person would come to someone’s aid, but that more than three dozen eyewitnesses wide awake in the wee hours of the morning would decide not to alert the authorities to a threat not just to Genovese but also to themselves and everyone else in the neighborhood.
The Times story had several problems, though the errors got lost in the hullabaloo. First, two attacks on Genovese occurred, not three. The fact that there were two at all was because one neighbor, hearing Genovese’s cries outside, yelled at Moseley, frightening the attacker momentarily and giving the victim enough time to slip inside the vestibule, where Moseley came around to pursue her again. Moreover, one quote from a supposed eyewitness-- I didn’t want to get involved”—was anonymous and, therefore, could not be proven.
But only two or three people had a clear view of what was going on and, thus, exemplified the indifference that was the theme of the Times story. One was an assistant superintendent in an apartment building across the way. Seeing the first attack, he did not call the police but simply went downstairs and took a nap. The second man, a friend and neighbor of Genovese’s who was drunk that night, saw both phases of the attack. He did nothing after the attack outside, largely because a friend he phoned told him not to do so. Then, after the vestibule stabbing occurred right outside his door, he called a neighbor, who urged him to come over—which he did by crawling out his window, across the roof, and down to the apartment, where he called the police—the second person to do so that night. Others who heard the shouting that night thought it was a drunken fight.
Later that year, Rosenthal wrote a book-length account of the case, Thirty-eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case, in which he repeated the basic outlines of the story. By the time he died four decades later, the case had embedded itself into social-science research as the “Genovese Syndrome,” with all kinds of explanations for why the supposed callous indifference to human life had occurred. In the last 10 years, more in-depth studies (including two current books, Kevin Cook’s Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America and Catherine Pelonero’s Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences) have revealed deep problems with the narrative. If you begin to type “Kitty Genovese” in Google, you will now see sizable results not just for “Syndrome” but for “Myth.”
According to a Huffington Post article from last November, Moseley—now 78—was denied parole for the 16th time last year, with his next chance not coming until 2015.
After stepping down as executive editor of the Times in the mid-‘80s, Rosenthal wrote a column for several years that the paper called “On My Mind” but that the satirical magazine Spy dubbed “Out of My Mind.” However, John Darnton, in his hilarious roman a clef mystery about the paper, Black and White and Dead All Over, used an even more devastating moniker for the pieces by the novel’s counterpart to the real-life character, Max Schwartzbaum: “Under My Thumb.” It’s a useful shorthand not just for the fear he exerted over staffers, but also for his thumbprint over the Genovese case.