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A Reexamination of the Kitty Genovese Case on PBS’ ‘The Witness’
January 23, 2017  | By David Hinckley

The Witness may be the last thing the mainstream media’s reputation needs right about now.

The new PBS documentary, which airs Monday at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings), reexamines one of the most enduring bad stories in the history of New York crime: the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese.

A New York Times story soon after her death reported that 38 people in her Kew Gardens neighborhood heard Genovese scream when a man named Winston Moses attacked her with a knife – and that no one even called the police.

To millions of people in and outside the city, this was a smoking gun moment, proving that urban America, even in a seemingly respectable part of town, had become cold and indifferent.  

It was a chilling extension of the long-argued notion that the decency and human values nurtured and sustained in small towns cannot survive in big impersonal cities.

The Genovese story seemed to confirm all of that, which is doubtless why it remains depressingly vivid more than 50 years after Kitty Genovese died.

Vivid does not, however, always mean accurate, and The Witness details the 11-year effort by Bill Genovese, Kitty’s younger brother, to determine what about the story was true and what was not.

The passage of time has naturally silenced many of the original players in the story, including Kew Gardens residents and the journalists who covered the story.

Or, Bill Genovese finds, didn’t cover it.

His conclusion, which seems well documented, is that the original Times story distorted the events and responses of that night badly enough that its conclusion was shaky, if not downright wrong.  

No other newspapers challenged it because, as newsman Gabe Pressman and others tell Genovese, it was the Times. You didn’t question the Times or go around double-checking its reported sources.

The Witness appropriately notes that The Times itself eventually did some questioning and double-checking of its own. A 2004 Times story, on the 40th anniversary of the murder, found serious errors in the original story.

Genovese’s findings support the revisionist view.

Contrary to the original story, for instance, he finds that Genovese didn’t die alone. A friend from the building, Sophie Farrar, heard her screams and came out to find her.

Farrar’s son Michael tells Bill Genovese that Sophie Farrar told the Times reporter that’s what happened – and he wrote the opposite in his story. After that, Michael Farrar said, his mother decided there was no point in talking further to the media.

That’s disturbing. More disturbing for the media is a note from a past revisitation in which the Times reporter admits he left out mitigating information about witnesses because it was a better story without it.

So Bill Genovese’s findings aren’t the first challenge to the original Kitty Genovese story. As documented by filmmaker James Solomon, however, they’re still compelling – particularly given the obstacles in re-examining a case where few original figures are alive.

In the broader picture, The Witness adds another bit of tarnish to the credibility of the media. Fifty years ago or not, the Genovese story became an American Statement because those who read it trusted the source.

Turns out they should have been more skeptical, which is not good news at a time when the highest officials in the land are pounding daily at media credibility.

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