Dickey: JonBenet and Pulp Fact

The reliving of JonBenet Ramsey's dying over the last few days—the story of a 6-year-old beauty queen found strangled and bludgeoned to death in her parents' basement in 1996, perhaps by a stranger who has just confessed, or perhaps not—tells a lot about what we don't know in this world, and why.

The case was and remains one of those true-life police dramas that has all the elements of a great fictional mystery. And, let's say it, for most people this tragedy is pure entertainment. The life and death of JonBenet Ramsey has absolutely nothing to do with your past, your present or your future. It affects no one directly except that poor little girl, her family, the murderer, the investigators and those who look to make a profit off of the whole ugly tale.

Like pulp fiction, pulp fact is purely vicarious. Heated debates can fill the empty air on 24/7 cable television, drunken arguments may disrupt summer barbecues, tears of sympathy can be shed, even vows of vengeance may be made now and again—then forgotten. Readers and viewers are not required to think, after all, only to react, until the next headline-grabbing soap opera takes over their imaginations.

Sensational interludes in the news are, to be sure, nothing new. Think of Jack the Ripper or read Erik Larson's recent best seller, "The Devil in the White City," a marvelous retelling of 1893 headlines about the serial killer who horrified Chicago during its world's fair. Every generation has its spectacular crimes and court cases, whether the Lindbergh kidnapping or Leopold and Loeb, Sam Sheppard or Charles Manson. We all have a little "CSI" in our DNA, it seems, and we'll all almost always watch the first few episodes of these true-crime sagas.

The problem comes when these stories not only supplement the news, giving it "color" and "human interest," they take it over. And that's just what happened in the 1990s. At the time the wider world was changing very quickly and very dangerously, and the American people—hell, the American government—was barely paying attention.

From the moment the Los Angeles police first fingered former football star O. J. Simpson for allegedly murdering his wife in 1994, salacious murder mysteries became the dominant product of America's media machinery. The ratings were great. Everybody was talking. And in a business where news outlets—cable channels, sites on the Internet (which were new in those days) and glossy magazines hungry for celebrity and sensation—were proliferating in a fiercely competitive free-for-all, police-blotter dramas became a kind of intellectual loss leader that held on to audiences.

Take a quick walk down memory lane, or the Rue Morgue, as it were: Susan Smith drowning her two sons in South Carolina—then pleading on television for their return; Gianni Versace shot down in Miami's South Beach; the Ramsey case. And then there was the death of Princess Diana : a royal soap opera that culminated in a tragic car crash cum conspiracy. In the same journalistic vein, but mercifully without bloodshed, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton turned a tawdry tryst into an affair of state. Do you remember the summer of 2001? The press was obsessed with the question of whether Congressman Gary Condit murdered his intern, Chandra Levy. Obsessed, that is, right up to September 2001.

What was happening elsewhere was, well, a lot. In the genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia, how many children with smiles every bit as warm and guileless as JonBenet Ramsey's were slaughtered by machete and hand grenade, sniper rifle and mortar shell? How many children died from AIDS in Africa or were orphaned by it? While the United States debated the true significance of that stain on the dress lovingly preserved by former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the Taliban were taking over Afghanistan and their ally Osama bin Laden was declaring war on the Western world.

Real dangers affecting the real lives of Americans were growing day by day, but stories about them seemed so distant, required so much thought, involved so many unpronounceable names, that they got little space, had little impact.

And then, yes, suddenly on September 11, 2001, nobody much cared about Gary Condit and Chandra Levy any more. (The case was never solved. Condit left the Hill, and later bought an ice-cream franchise in Arizona. As for O. J., after he was acquitted of criminal charges he eventually won custody of his children.) True crime still lingered, of course. The Laci Petersen case was a constant counterpoint to the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. But the police-blotter monopoly was broken.

There is a temptation, if you're one of the reporters out in the field covering the slaughter of innocents, the rise of tyrants, the approach of wars, the carnage in the streets, the futility of the aftermath, to blame the public for its ignorance and the owners of media empires for playing to it. But I think that's a mistake.

Those of us left abroad trying to tell the United States about the world—and there are far fewer now than 10 years ago—have failed to make the lives of people in Lebanon and Israel, say, or Afghanistan, or Colombia, or Congo or Indonesia, as vivid in the minds of American readers and viewers as the case of JonBenet Ramsey. Our subjects are for the most part so alien-seeming, and so far beyond hope, perhaps, no matter how bright the eyes, how warm the smiles.

Do I have a solution? No, I do not. But this much I've figured out: the world will be a safer place, and a better place, when we journalists find ways—informing, cajoling, seducing, entertaining—to make the living and dying of people half a world away not only important in American minds but also in American hearts.