Thursday, January 31, 2013

A. M. Rosenthal & the Truth About Kitty Genovese

The Times has an interesting article that, loosely speaking, is about whether publishers and authors have an obligation to update nonfiction works, perhaps with a new preface, when the book is reissued and new information has come to light about the subject.

Now, my personal preference is authors and publishers keep works as current as possible. People go on reading books such as Centuries of Childhood (Aries) and The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (Murray) for decades after they are published, with no hint of the problems and subsequent scholarship on those subjects.

A.M. Rosenthal had a chance to update and correct his own reputation-making book on the Kitty Genovese murder, and he decided not to. Here's what's in the Times article:
Anyway, it is doubtful that Mr. Rosenthal, who died in 2006, would have wanted any addendum attached that acknowledges the challenges to his conclusions. When the journalist reporting the 2004 Times article approached him with the skeptics’ claims, he was resolute. 
“In a story that gets a lot of attention, there’s always somebody who’s saying, ‘Well, that’s not really what it’s supposed to be,’ “ Mr. Rosenthal is quoted as saying. “There may have been 38, there may have been 39, but the whole picture, as I saw it, was very affecting.”
Earlier in the article, other experts say this about the number of witnesses to Genovese's killing:
But over time the basic facts were called into question. As early as 1984 The Daily News published an article pointing to flaws in the reporting. In 2004 The Times did its own summation of the critical research, showing that since Ms. Genovese crawled around to the back of the building after she was stabbed the first time (her assailant fled and returned) very few people would have seen anything. 
The article quoted among others Charles E. Skoller, the former Queens assistant district attorney who helped prosecute the case and who also has written a book on it. “I don’t think 38 people witnessed it,” said Mr. Skoller, who had retired by the time of the interview. “I don’t know where that came from, the 38. I didn’t count 38. We only found half a dozen that saw what was going on, that we could use.” There were other mitigating factors as well; it was a cold night, and most people had their windows closed. 
“Maybe only five people were in the position to hear her calls, if even that,” said Kevin Cook, an author who is currently researching the case for a book of his own and trying to determine exactly who knew what. 
Just to make this clear, journalist and influential Times editor A.M. Rosenthal wasn't interested in presenting correct information about this case. If he weren't dead, I'd be writing letter to the editor suggesting that he should be fired, or lose his Times pension.


Anonymous said...

I guess I'm missing something here. What exactly is the gaping existential difference between 38 people hearing the murder and not calling the police, and only 5 people hearing the murder and not calling the police? That just doesn't seem to me to be monumentally less horrifying.

Lisa Hirsch said...

It's a big numerical difference, the kind of gap that ethically should have been corrected. But the larger number has been held up and waved around for 50 years as evidence of inhumanity, indifference, the ease with which people ignore others in need. And that has gone on for all these despite being wrong.