Imagine opening up a newspaper and reading the following four paragraphs:
In late 1969, the American news media carried graphic reports of a gang, dispatched by its charismatic leader Charles Manson, brutally murdering Sharon Tate and several others in her home in the Santa Monica mountains.
But at his 1970 trial, Mr. Manson insisted he neither killed anyone nor ordered anyone to be killed. And again in a 1987 interview, he asserted that he’s “never killed anyone,” describing himself as a petty car thief who has merely “burglarized a grocery store, stole some nickels and dimes, busted open a stamp machine, stole a few automobiles, and cashed a couple checks.”
A number of witnesses testified against Manson at his trial, and he was found guilty of first-degree murder.
Whatever the truth, the theft of automobiles clouds respect for Mr. Manson’s supposed leadership skills.
If this revisionist account sounds absurd — it repackages America’s most infamous serial killer as a thief who might not actually be responsible for murder — that’s because it is. No serious newspaper would print such a thing. Certainly, the respected New York Times would not — at least, not about this particular killer.
But if we replace the name Charles Manson with that of Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, and the name Sharon Tate with those of Danny Haran and his 4-year-old daughter Einat, then the passage matches, almost word for word, the language of a July 16 story about Kuntar published in the New York Times. The piece casts doubt on the veracity of the Israeli court decision finding Kuntar to be guilty of murder, concluding that “whatever the truth, the kidnapping of a child clouds Mr. Kuntar’s supposed heroism.” A highlighted pull quote invites readers to ask whether the man is “a child’s killer or a courageous fighter against Israel.”
What new evidence caused the Times reporter, Craig S. Smith, to cast doubt on the verdict? Smith explains that recently declassified court documents published in the Israeli press reveal — and here is the bombshell that potentially exculpates the accused child killer — Kuntar claimed he didn’t do it.
Never mind the witnesses, the compelling evidence, and the deliberation. Never mind that Kuntar initially admitted to the killings, a point raised in the Israeli press report but not mentioned in the New York Times. Never mind the girl’s brain tissue found on the butt of his rifle. Smith apparently deems the denial by Kuntar, a member of the Palestine Liberation Front terror organization who had just infiltrated Israel with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, to be just as credible than the findings of an Israeli court.
Most sober observers would disagree. We might believe people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but not that they should be considered innocent even after being proven guilty.
Still, maybe the press, as professional skeptics and critics, see things differently. If the New York Times has a policy of placing a suspect’s denial and a court’s ruling on equal footing, then this Kuntar article, even if disagreeable, would not be unusual.
But it turns out the piece is both disagreeable and unusual, an inexplicable departure from the Times‘ typical treatment of convicted killers. In May 1986, the newspaper reported that Richard Ramirez, a suspect in multiple murders, pleaded not guilty. In September 1989, it carried the news that Ramirez was convicted of the crimes — and the newspaper immediately accepted the verdict as fact. A November 1989 report described Ramirez as the man “who killed 13 people in … attacks that terrorized Southern California,” and another story dubbed him “the Los Angeles murderer called the ‘night stalker.’” Still in August 2006, he was described as “the serial killer Richard Ramirez.”
Likewise, in 2003, the newspaper noted that suspect Scott Peterson “disavow[ed] any connection to the disappearance of his wife” and “pleaded not guilty” to charges that he killed her. In 2004, a headline announced, “Jury finds Scott Peterson Guilty of wife’s murder.” The following year, Peterson was described in the Times as “the fertilizer salesman for whom the murder of his wife seemed preferable to the slow dissolution of marriage.” Unlike with Kuntar, “whatever the truth” was not seen as applying to the Peterson verdict.
And of course, although Charles Manson has insisted that he is “a petty car thief” who has “never killed anyone,” he was convicted in court of multiple counts of murder. The New York Times now refers to him as “the serial killer Charles Manson,” who perpetrated “the Charles Manson killings.” No buts, no maybes, no whatevers.
For the man who murdered a little girl while on a mission for a Palestinian terrorist organization, though, the New York Times and Craig S. Smith — despite having reported in the past that Kuntar did indeed perpetrate the killings — now have a different standard. On July 16, the day journalists and the general public marked Kuntar’s release from prison by recalling his savagery, the New York Times absolved him.
For a broader look at the media’s treatment of Kuntar, see “Whitewashing a Terrorist.”