Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Modern true crime practitioners face challenges

 Author Sarah Weinman writes in The New York Times:

During the end credits of the recent film “Boston Strangler,” which dramatized the real-life efforts to crack that criminal case, there’s a notation that addresses the fate of a convicted murderer named George Nassar who, the movie states, is “still in prison in Massachusetts.” I’ve long been fascinated with the Strangler case and Mr. Nassar’s connection to it, so this detail caught my attention — since I was pretty sure I recalled an interview from a few years back in which he announced that he had terminal prostate cancer. As it turns out, Mr. Nassar, who told authorities that his cellmate had confessed to being the Strangler, died in 2018 at a prison hospital in Jamaica Plain.

As a writer and editor of true crime, I might be more sensitive to these sorts of factual errors than most people. But they are part of a troubling trend. Errors like the one in “Boston Strangler” threaten the integrity of true crime, which as a genre has grappled with whether the stories it tells about crimes are, in fact, true.

True crime has always had a volatile relationship with facts. A century ago, tabloid newspapers routinely hyped up the most lurid aspects of a crime, even if there were few verifiable facts to be had. One reason the Hall-Mills murders of 1922 remain unsolved is that the press trampled all over the crime scene, literally and metaphorically.

Truman Capote, who is credited with inventing the modern true crime genre with “In Cold Blood,” radically expanded its creative possibilities — even as he resorted to making things up for effect. The book’s final scene in the cemetery, in which the detective visits the Clutter family’s graves with the daughter’s best friend? Invented out of whole cloth. Capote even landed in jail after he refused to take the stand because, according to a death-row prisoner, Capote would have had to reveal that he’d lied about their interview. The crime journalist Jack Olsen once said of Capote’s book that it “made true crime an interesting, successful, commercial genre, but it also began the process of tearing it down.”

Accuracy is not the only challenge that true crime practitioners face. Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer” famously explores the inherent ethical dilemmas in earning a subject’s trust — especially if it’s a story of violence, trauma and tragedy. Malcolm wrote that “the writer-subject relationship seems to depend for its life on a kind of fuzziness and murkiness, if not utter covertness, of purpose.”

Given this fraught history, you’d think that modern true crime practitioners would proceed with utmost care and caution. In reality, the opposite is true, plunging true crime into a credibility crisis — thanks to the pressures of a voracious market for documentaries, docuseries, podcasts and movies purporting to be based on real events.

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The variety of lapses are as plentiful as the examples are. HBO’s blockbuster 2015 documentary series “The Jinx,” about the murderer Robert Durst, was lauded for its shocking twist ending — which was later revealed to be the product of editing that manipulated the timeline for maximum impact. “Making a Murderer,” a Netflix series which debuted the same year, stirred public outrage over an apparently unjust conviction — and then it came out that the show had omitted evidence that supported the prosecutor’s case.

Beyond factual lapses and questionable techniques, the rush to feed the true crime beast has led to all sorts of slippery practices. The limited series “Dahmer” on Netflix retold a well-documented story with a new, exploitative gloss — over the objections of family members of Dahmer’s victims, who protested that the series was “retraumatizing over and over again.” As the market becomes more competitive, true crime filmmakers have raced to lock down exclusive access to sources, preventing other journalists from reporting out a story, as happened in the case of a film about the women R. Kelly assaulted.

The proliferation of true crime podcasts has led to some honorable examples of investigative journalism, such as “In the Dark,” which won two Peabody awards for its re-examination of mishandled murder cases. But for every podcast like that, there are 10 (or more) in which so-called experts speculate on infamous mysteries with far more eagerness than authority.

These slipshod approaches have real-world consequences. Richard Walter, an expert criminal profiler whose testimony led to many convictions, was recently revealed to be a fraud. That’s particularly disturbing not only for those wrongfully imprisoned thanks, in part, to his faked credentials but for the way his fakery hid in plain sight for decades. Walter had become a hero to some in the true crime community, lionized in books that were more interested in chronicling his dramatic exploits than in the authenticity of his expertise.

Given a figure as egregious as Walter, it may seem ungenerous to call out an error in a film like “Boston Strangler” — after all, we tolerate, and even expect, a certain level of embellishment in our entertainment, even in those works based on real events. But this misstep illustrates how, increasingly, stories of tragedy (and, ironically, stories of dogged journalistic reporting) have become simply another form of intellectual property to be put through a churn of repackaging and reselling.

It’s become a familiar cycle: A criminal case becomes a book, becomes a podcast, becomes a documentary, becomes a scripted series or a film, becomes another, more sensational film. There are now even true crime cookbooks. But somewhere at the start of it all an actual crime took place, leaving behind not just facts but victims and survivors. Where does a true crime cookbook leave them?

At its best, true crime grapples with what can and cannot be uncovered and verified about the past, and even incorporates those challenges into the story. I’m thinking of two recent books, Alex Mar’s “Seventy Times Seven,” a compassionate account of mercy for a teenage girl on death row, and Roxanna Asgarian’s “We Were Once a Family,” on the heartbreaking failures of child foster systems to prevent senseless deaths. Both demonstrate the impact that great true crime can have. They give a full accounting not just of the details of the crimes but of the lives of those affected by violence, exploring whether the legal system can truly provide justice.

But if the facts aren’t there, or they’re flatly wrong, or they’re twisted beyond recognition, then true crime transforms into something closer to lurid fiction — and the entities cashing in on it are making a cynical, shortsighted bet. If creators want to benefit from the frisson of a “true” story, they must honor the truth — it’s that simple. If true crime practitioners give up on doing better and succumb to the temptation of exploitation, that would be a crime in and of itself.

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