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High-Profile CrimesWhen Legal Cases Become Social Causes$

Lynn S. Chancer

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780226101125

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: February 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226101132.001.0001

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(p.276) Appendix C Acknowledging Intellectual Debts and Distinctions

(p.276) Appendix C Acknowledging Intellectual Debts and Distinctions

High-Profile Crimes
University of Chicago Press

To place this book in the larger intellectual context from which I drew inspiration, a number of other approaches to studying crime cases both sociologically and historically should be mentioned. As for sociological works, previous studies of high-profile crimes have tended to consider crime cases either somewhat more narrowly or more broadly than this work. For instance, commercial treatments have focused on the “Howard Beach,” “Central Park jogger,” “Bensonhurst,” “Rodney King,” and “O.J. Simpson” cases.1 Other works have alluded to high-profile crime cases in the context of cultural criticism, but without giving particular incidents detailed scrutiny. For example, Murray Edelman's Constructing the Spectacle examined the role of media in creating symbolic cultural events; edited collections of shorter works have analyzed individual instances like the “Anita Hill,” “William Kennedy Smith,” and “Jeffrey Dahmer” cases, but under the broad rubric of “media spectacles.”2

Other studies have approached highly profiled incidents by focusing on topics other than the cases themselves. For instance, sociologist Alphonse Pinckney targeted American racism as manifested through the “Howard Beach” and other late 1980s New York City cases.3 Darnell Hunt thoroughly investigated media constructions of the social world, and diverse public reactions to “the media,” in a superb study of the “O.J. Simpson” case.4 A volume on media coverage of the “Simpson” case edited by Gregg Barak was also very useful for this project.5 Legal scholar George Fletcher explored public outcries sympathetic to victims in the 1990s as expressed through a range of high-profile crime cases including “Rodney King,” “Yankel Rosen-baum,” “Mike Tyson,” and “William Kennedy Smith.”6 In A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance Rape on Trial, anthropology professor Peggy Reeves Sanday focused on the 1991 “St. John’s” case—highly publicized in New York City after the “Central Park jogger” and “Bensonhurst” cases, but also occurring around the same time as the “William Kennedy Smith,” “Clarence Thomas,” and “Mike Tyson” cases—to explore problems encountered by rape victims.7 Journalism professor Helen Benedict used the “New Bedford,” “Robert Chambers/Jennifer Levin,” and “Central Park jogger” high-profile (p.277) cases as examples of taken-for-granted sexism among reporters who covered “sex crimes” from the late 1970s through the 1980s.8 However, it was not these authors’ aim to explore how symbolic crime cases themselves emerge through the interactive participation of parties in the media, the public, and the legal system.

Specific works that explore the practices and mind-sets of each group of actors were extremely helpful for this work. Regarding the media, a rich “sociology of news” based on ethnographies of newspapers and television stations aided in assessing how journalists operate under short deadlines and competitive pressures. Studies by Herbert Gans, Gaye Tuchman, and Mark Fishman provided valuable insight into journalists’ typical perspectives on the world.9 In contrast to these works, though, this book also examines outside parties’ views of the media, including the perspectives of social movement activists. Again, ensuing case studies suggest that journalists’ practices are affected by such criticism in ways that may belie their professed commitment to objectivity and that appears to influence selection processes in future cases that become highly profiled. Consequently, this book attempts to provide a dynamic account of relationships between the media and the public as they unfold through ongoing controversies over crime cases.

This emphasis on ongoing, dialectic interaction also differentiates Provoking Assaults from studies that did focus on media relationships with other social actors. In The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left, Todd Gitlin argued that media coverage influenced the history of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). According to Gitlin, a destructive combination of media attention and organizational in-fighting contributed to this New Left group's decline in the late 1960s.10 Less well-known in the United States is a classic work of British criminology even more germane to studying American high-profile cases. Although Stuart Hall et al.'s Policing the Crisis relied on newspaper texts and theoretical analysis more than interview data, its authors thoroughly investigated the role of the judiciary and the state, not just the media, in generating a “moral panic” over crime in Great Britain.11 Hall and his colleagues contended that collective anxieties about “mugging,” a term imported from the United States, distracted attention from underlying and more implacable socioeconomic problems facing Britain in the early 1970s.12 The concept of moral panics is one for which I am indebted, particularly insofar as it provides important insight into how an issue can suddenly become perceived as an urgent social problem through media coverage, even though that problem existed long beforehand. Moral panics also tend to be short-lived as moments during which public anxieties are at their height; their tendency to dissipate also helps explain why the effects of provoking assaults may not be long-lasting.

But the present study differs from these works, too, in that neither Gitlin nor Hall et al. investigated the possibility that media coverage might create unintended consequences not necessarily helpful for the press's own social image and power. The Whole World is Watching argued that SDS was virtually destroyed by journalistic intercession, and Policing the Crisis that the press succeeded in deflecting attention from deeper societal dilemmas. However, precisely because the present work stresses mutual interaction (p.278) between media and publics, it implies tensions between actors that are likely to be ongoing for both. Provoking assaults conflate legal cases with social causes; they may bequeath “left over” dissatisfactions in the wake of only partially satisfying verdicts. Consequently, I argue that vestigial resentments underlay the public's efforts to keep high-profile crime cases alive. In studying crime cases of the 1980s and 1990s, the media's hold on American culture emerges as at once mighty and restricted; “the media” often evokes strong emotions from the public, sometimes being blamed for problems not entirely of its own creation.

Regarding public reactions, sociologists have demonstrated both these strengths and limitations of media effects; many studies have used focus groups to concretize cultural theories of reception. For instance, in Talking Politics, William Gamson conducted in-depth discussions to investigate public reactions to media coverage, particularly as these reactions revealed potential for collective change. One of three “collective action” frames viewers brought to news coverage was “injustice.” Relevant to the present study is Gamson's conclusion, based on these focus groups, that Americans’ views on a wide range of subjects are more socially oriented than many media characterizations suggest.13

Other sociological studies of reception focused on crime cases specifically. For example, in Britain, R. Emerson Dobash and Russell R. Dobash showed that women's fear of crime varied according to whether female television viewers had been victimized themselves14; among the popular cultural “texts” discussed by women in focus groups was the film adapted from the New Bedford case, The Accused. To study fear of crime in the United States, Esther Madriz conducted focus groups among African American, Latino, and white women in the early 1990s. She found that even though women faced greater chances of violent victimization from acquaintances, many feared assaults by strangers more; several women cited the “Central Park jogger” case as a symbolic marker that increased their fears.15 Darnell Hunt studied African American, Latino, and white viewers’ reactions to television coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. This coverage depicted events in polarized terms of “black” and “white,” and failed to report that more than half of those arrested in the aftermath of protests were Latino.16 Each of these studies showed that even where media depictions of violent crimes were skewed, public reactions nevertheless displayed rich variety.

Like ethnographies of journalists, though, reception studies usually center only on one group—audiences—rather than on interaction between several sets of actors. (Hunt's study of reactions to the Los Angeles riots, though, did analyze interactions between viewing public and the media.) In general, little is heard from journalists themselves about why and how they came to construct crime stories simplistically or speciously. Moreover, while the work of Gitlin and Hall et al. did not take public criticisms of the media much into account, reception studies tend to veer in the opposite direction. Emphasis is placed on reacting publics’ power to “resist” media influences, regardless of whether these reactions lead to changes in how the media actually works. By contrast, I document in this book how reacting publics, journalists, and representatives of the legal system become caught up in larger social, economic, and (p.279) cultural processes only partly of their own makings; for example, partialization affects them all. This approach has the advantage of revealing how media and public actors tend to blame one another for problems they experience.

Regarding the role of the legal system, I was influenced by previous studies of popular and political trials. Among other writers, Hariman, Gewirtz, Minow, and Levin-son imaginatively used rhetoric and literary criticism to analyze well-known court cases.17 Several studies in this vein have explored the wide range of feelings, from anger to pleasure, which are expressed through narrative identifications in the courtroom;18 others studies attest simply to growing interest in using narrative and storytelling to enrich the sociology of law.19 Unlike many studies of news producers and audience reactions, this literature does emphasize interactive dynamics; it draws on trial transcripts and media texts to document diverse parties’ “voices.” While these studies were helpful, I rely heavily on the use of interviews, presuming that valuable insight can be gained from talking with those actually engaged with high-profile crime cases.

This book is linked to but different from other studies of crime cases in historical ways as well. Let me return to an important question raised earlier: What exactly distinguishes provoking assaults from other famous crime cases of other eras and places? One factor has to do with what provoking assaults are not: they are distinguishable from “political trials,” which, according to Theodore Becker, occur when “members of a ruling elite believe a particular individual or group to be imminently hostile.”20 The trial of the Rosenbergs for treason in 1951 is a clear case on point. American political trials have also involved defendants’ explicit use of courtrooms to publicize causes for which they claim to have been unjustly arrested. The 1968 trial of the “Chicago Seven” provides a good example, in which arrested activists proclaimed that the state was the criminal party at fault, and that they had acted in principled opposition against the Vietnam War.21

Yet political trials studied in this tradition diverge from provoking assaults in a number of ways. Whereas 1960s trials often involved explicit use of courtrooms for political purposes, provoking assaults of the 1980s and 1990s featured violence between individuals. Accused parties in provoking assaults did not explicitly challenge the state by committing crimes: perpetrators did not commit violent acts to make political points; nor were they using trials thereafter for the conscious goal of galvanizing social movements. Moreover, violent crimes alleged or committed were agreed, virtually universally, to be wrong; parties accused of rape, assault, or murder, and their sympathizers, found themselves squarely on the defensive in a way that “victims” of the state might not have.

Closest to provoking assaults, though, are what Lisa Cuklanz calls a new genre of “issue-oriented” trials. Cuklanz describes this genre as reflecting “specific issues that were brought to the fore by social movements”; moreover, some issue-oriented trials “involve issues of cultural politics that pit one subcultural group against another and are indirectly related to social change.”22 Even though Cuklanz herself focused on three cases that stimulated controversies about rape and rape reform laws between (p.280) 1978 and 1985—the “Rideout” case (involving marital rape), the “New Bedford” rape case, and the “Gary Dotson” case—she also alludes to the “Central Park jogger” and “Bensonhurst” cases in New York, and the “Rodney King” and “Latasha Harlins” cases in Los Angeles as examples of issue-oriented trials that did not involve gender per se. However, Cuklanz distinguishes between issue-oriented trials and celebrity cases like “William Kennedy Smith,” “Mike Tyson,” and (by extension of her analysis) “O.J. Simpson.”23 In this respect, her analytic framework is different than mine insofar as I treat celebrity cases as a subset of the larger category of provoking assaults. Cuklanz's contends that celebrity cases bring substantive issues to the fore only secondarily; fundamentally, she argues, these cases are about personality and the merging of news with entertainment. My sense, however, is that a cultural phenomenon was building through the 1980s and 1990s that blurred distinctions between celebrity and issue-oriented cases as vehicles of American political discourse. Certain common themes (for example, the playing of gender against race) eventually interconnected noncelebrity cases like “Central Park” with celebrity trials like “Mike Tyson” and “O.J. Simpson.” Similarly, media and legal connections were drawn from “Rodney King” to “O.J. Simpson”; as these relationships unfolded, the former case influenced the latter's becoming interwoven with “serious” issues bequeathed through previous discussions of racial politics.

Despite their clearly agreed-upon differences from political trials, though, provoking assaults became social causes nevertheless. This suggests that, by the 1980s and 1990s, activists were making some of their claims relatively more indirectly than in the 1960s. They may have used violent crimes that were both hateful in character and universally agreed to be wrong, to crystallize points about ongoing forms of discrimination in American society.24 Moreover, precisely because provoking assaults entail an indirectly politicized form, defense mechanisms may have come into play within group-based situations (see chapter 6). Here, my intention has been to appropriate Freudian defense mechanisms for specifically sociological usages. For an ongoing problem with the psychoanalytic tradition has been its application of such mechanisms in the effort to understand individuals’—rather than groups’—unconscious motivations.25 In this respect, too, transcending the immediate topic of 1980s and 1990s high-profile crime cases per se, the present study is both influenced by and different from related works in the literatures just surveyed.


(1.) More popular accounts have been written about the “O.J. Simpson” and “Rodney King” cases than are easily listed here. Regarding “Howard Beach,” one book has appeared by the prosecutor of that case. See Charles J. Hynes and Bob Drury, Incident at Howard Beach: The Case for Murder (New York: Putnam, 1990). One popular chronicle was written of the “Bensonhurst” case. See John DeSantis, For the Color of His Skin: The Murder of Yusef Hawkins and the Trial of Bensonhurst (New York: Pharos Books, 1991). Another was written about the “Central Park jogger” case. See Timothy Sullivan, Unequal Verdicts: The Central Park Jogger Trials (New York: American Lawyer Books/Simon and Schuster, 1992). Regarding the “Mike Tyson” case, see Mark Shaw, Down for the Count: The Shocking Truth behind the Mike Tyson Rape Trial (Champaigne, Ill: Sagamore Publishing, 1993).

(2.) See Murray Edelman, Constructing the Political Spectacle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); and Marjorie Garber, Jann Matlock, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., Media Spectacles (New York: Routledge, 1993).

(3.) See Alphonse Pinckney, Lest We Forget White Hate Crimes: Howard Beach and Other Racial Atrocities (Chicago: Third World Press, 1984).

(4.) See Darnell M. Hunt, O.J. Simpson Facts and Fictions: News Rituals in the Construction of Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

(5.) See Gregg Barak, ed., Representing O.J.: Murder, Criminal Justice, and Mass Culture (New York: Harrow and Heston, 1999).

(6.) See George B. Fletcher, With Justice for Some: Victims’ Rights in Criminal Trials (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1990).

(7.) See Peggy Reeves Sanday, A Woman Scorned: Acquaintance Rape on Trial (New York: Doubleday, 1996).

(8.) See Helen Benedict, Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

(9.) See, because important among these works, Herbert J. Gans, Deciding What's News (New York: Vintage Books, 1980); Gaye Tuchman, Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978); and Mark Fishman, Manufacturing the News (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980).

(10.) Todd Gitlin, The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980). See especially pp. 283– 92, concerning implications for social movements of media practices.

(11.) Hall et al. drew on the idea of a moral panic as formulated by Stan Cohen in Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1972): “Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined (p.300) as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a styled and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic is passed over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way society conceives itself” (28).

(12.) See Stuart Hall, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (New York: Holmes and Meier Publications, Inc., 1978).

(13.) William Gamson, Talking Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), xi, 54–58, 83.

(14.) R. Emerson Dobash and Russell R. Dobash, Women Viewing Violence, ed. Philip Schlesinger (London: British Film Institute, 1992).

(15.) See Esther Madriz, Nothing Bad Happens to Good Girls: Fear of Crime in Women's Lives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

(16.) See Darnell Hunt, Screening the Los Angeles “Riots”: Race, Seeing, and Resistance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

(17.) See, for example, the studies of popular trials presented in Robert Hariman, ed., Popular Trials: Rhetoric, Mass Media, and the Law (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990). Regarding the use of narrative to analyze both legal and social events, see contributions by Gewirtz, Minow, and Levinson in Law's Stories: Narrative and Rhetoric in the Law (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

(18.) See, for example, Kristin Bumiller's interesting discussion of the “Central Park jogger” case in Feminism, Media and the Law, ed. Martha A. Fineman and Martha T. McCluskey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

(19.) A good summary of growing interest in using narrative to illuminate specific-ally sociological questions is found in Margaret R. Somers and Gloria D. Gibson, “Reclaiming the Epistemological ‘ Other’: Narrative and the Social Construction of Identity,” in Social Theory and the Politics of Identity, ed. Craig Calhoun (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

(20.) Regarding the literature on political trials, see Theodore Becker, “Introduction,” in Becker, ed., Political Trials (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1971), xii. See also Ron Christenson, Political Trials: Gordian Knots in the Law (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1989; and Andrew David, Famous Political Trials (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1980). Probably the classic work on political trials, however, is Otto Kirchheimer's Political Justice: The Use of Legal Procedures for Political Ends (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961.

( (p.301) 21.) Regarding the case of the “Chicago Seven,” see David R. Farber, Chicago '68 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); John Schultz, The Chicago Conspiracy Trial (New York: Da Capo Press, 1993).

(22.) Lisa M. Cuklanz, Rape on Trial: How the Mass Media Construct Legal Reform and Social Change (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 38.

(23.) Ibid., 37.

(24.) This is not to suggest that there have not been other decades when violent crimes were later politicized through social movement protests. However, what I believe to be distinctive about provoking assaults of the 1980s and 1990s is that they produce ongoing sequences of substantively interconnected cases.

(25.) An important exception to this is found in the work of the Frankfurt School, especially Erich Fromm's discussion of specifically social defense mechanisms in Escape from Freedom (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1941). More recently, see Wilfred Bion, Experience in Groups and Other Papers (New York: Basic Books, 1961). (p.302)