Washington Post
October 21, 1999

Presumed Guilty--And Tasteless

By Richard Cohen

A gossip columnist for the New York Daily News reveals that a new book about James A. Michener "quotes him as placing the blame for JonBenet's slaying squarely on the parents." The item does not say that Michener knew anything special about the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, but that would hardly matter anyway. Posthumously, he joins others in the news media who, with a certainty that is breathtaking, have journalistically lynched one or both of the dead girl's parents. They are guilty--if not of murder, then certainly of bad taste.

It is the bad taste that has doomed them. They entered their little girl in child beauty pageants. They had her dance and had her sing and, in the costume competition, outfitted her so that, with makeup, she seemed jarringly sexualized. It appeared that they had turned their child into a sex object, and when America saw the video many people concluded that there was something fundamentally wrong with that family. What sort of people were these?

It may turn out that the Ramseys are the ogres many in the tabloid media think they are. Some of the evidence, after all, suggests that someone within that household killed and sexually molested that little girl. (And some of it points the other way.) You have to wonder why the parents were initially uncooperative with the authorities and why they retained separate lawyers. They were only exercising their legal rights, of course, yet they certainly aroused suspicion.

But it ought to matter that no charges have been brought. It ought to matter to the media that neither of the parents has been arrested--not even, mind you, by local authorities who seem out to get them. It ought to matter that entering a child in a beauty pageant is not the functional equivalent of sexual molestation and, to my mind, is only a bit more weird than rousing your kid at some pre-dawn hour to practice swimming--a sport where you're washed up before you're out of your teens.

Patsy Ramsey was not the only parent who lived through her child. She is hardly the only mother who had her child follow in her own footsteps. She had climbed the contest ladder herself. She had been Miss West Virginia. How would she know what looked weird? This was her life.

In this O. J. Simpson era, much of America has lost its faith in the unerring fairness of the criminal justice system--and does not hesitate to say so. Still, it is quite a leap from that single video of JonBenet to the conclusion that something in that family is so twisted that a murder has resulted. The parents have been dehumanized, turned into quasi-celebrities, mere pegs for stories. Yet if they did not kill their daughter--and no authority says otherwise--then they have suffered a loss that is simply beyond the comprehension of most people. Their kid was murdered. It is a nightmare without end.

But it gets worse. The tabloids unload on them with innuendo and outright accusations. Always there's a reference to the lengths to which Patsy Ramsey went to beautify her girl. The mother is accused of sexualizing a mere child. But is this what she really intended? We don't know. Did she see her daughter the way we do now? We don't know. All we know is that we do not approve. What more do you need? Cuff her.

The child pageant business has suffered. Fewer and fewer parents want to be likened to the Ramseys. People in the business say their numbers are down. There's not a spot in America where the Ramsey video was not seen, and everyone who saw it has paid heed. It looked awful.

Indeed, it did. I recoiled, I admit, when I first saw that video. It now seems, though, that Patsy Ramsey's big mistake was in going uptown in wealth and status but retaining this piece of her downtown culture. Had she lived in a trailer park, we would not have passed judgment. But since she had money and lived in a swell house, the pursuit of beauty pageant titles for her daughter appeared discordant. It seemed something was awfully wrong.

But being a stage parent, even one with bad taste, is hardly conclusive proof of evil. It just could be that an intruder entered that house and killed JonBenet Ramsey. That's a theory, but here's a fact. If the parents are not guilty, then the sickest people in this whole story--aside from the killer--are members of the journalistic lynch mob who have so casually condemned the Ramseys. It's one thing to be wrong. It's another to be cruel.


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