Why the press can't get enough of Harvard or Yale murders.

Media criticism.
Sept. 17 2009 7:30 PM

Murder Draped in Ivy

Why the press can't get enough of Harvard or Yale murders.

Security escorts Raymond Clark III. Click image to expand.
Raymond Clark III is escorted to court

If you plan to be murdered and expect decent press coverage, please have the good sense to be a Harvard or Yale student or professor. America's top dailies and the cable networks will rush to the scene of the crime and sniff the vicinity for clues to your demise. They'll scrape your personal history and publish enough information to serve as a foundation for a made-for-TV movie about you.

Likewise, if you kill somebody and want the press to go all Nancy Grace on your ass, make sure your victim attends or works at Harvard or Yale. Journalists almost everywhere observe this rough rule of thumb: Three murders at a Midwestern college equal one murder at Harvard or Yale.

The press is currently demonstrating its abiding interest in Ivy League murders as it covers the killing of Yale University graduate student Annie Le, who went missing last week and was discovered on Sept. 13 hidden inside a wall in a campus building where she worked.

The New York Times, one of several Ivy League house organs, has already published five articles about Le's disappearance and murder and the apprehension of suspect Raymond Clark III. The Boston Globe has published at least six stories about the case, and the Washington Post has run at least three briefs from the Associated Press. The Timesof London, published five time zones away, can't seem to sate its appetite for Annie Le news. Even the proletarian New York tabloids—the Postand the Daily News—have gone ape for the story.

The press has long thrived on Harvard and Yale murder. Earlier this year, Newsweek, the New York Times, and other publications threw themselves at the murder of Cambridge, Mass., resident Justin Cosby in a Harvard dorm. When Sinedu Tadesse killed her Harvard roommate and hanged herself in 1995, the New York Times printed at least six stories on it; TheNew Yorker ran long on the crime in a 1996 feature by Melanie Thernstrom. (Doubleday released her book-length account the following year.) See also the 1991 murder of Yale sophomore Christian Prince—or, for that matter, the cold-case slaying of Suzanne Jovin, a Yale senior killed off campus in 1998. * The New York Times Web site has an entire "Times Topics" page on Jovin. Times coverage of the 2001 murders of professors Half Zantop and Suzanne Zantop also gets its own space in the "Times Topics" parking garage. (They taught at Dartmouth, which as far as I'm concerned is Harvard Lite.)

Defenders of abundant Annie Le coverage will cite special circumstances that make this killing more newsworthy than your garden-variety murder. Le was reported as missing. She was found, on the day she was to be married, in a strange place. Also, the fact that the charged suspect was a "a grunt in the rarefied world of medical research, cleaning lab animals' cages and doing custodial chores," as the New York Times puts it, has given the story town-gown legs.

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But every murder is uniquely dramatic; otherwise, CSI would be set in Ivy League towns instead of Las Vegas, Miami, and New York. (Addendum:A reader points out that New York is an Ivy League town. I concede the error, but leave the joke intact.) Had the Le murder happened at, say, Oklahoma State University, you'd have to bribe the night editor of the New York Times with a case of scotch and Hasty Pudding ticketsto get him to run a one-inch wire story. Hell, a Stanford murder wouldn't warrant this sort of coverage! All murders are equal; it's just that press treats Harvard and Yale murders as more equal.

I can already hear the special pleaders responding: Harvard and Yale murders deserve special coverage because those universities occupy exceptional places in our national psyche. An inordinate contingent of the American elite is educated and socialized there. Then there's the alleged bellwether effect: Harvard and Yale people will tell you more eyes look to Harvard and Yale on a regular basis than to the nation's Podunk U.'s, which makes them de facto symbols for broader university-life concerns. West Texas State's image won't dim if you get murdered there, but get murdered at Harvard or Yale and you have people all across the country worrying about campus safety. And don't forget the "even at Harvard?" effect: These schools have the reputationfor being some of the country's most exclusive ivory towers. Grisly crime stands in disconcerting relief against their vaunted reputations—and the resulting cognitive dissonance has news weight. By this logic, anything out of the ordinary that happens at Harvard or Yale—from a murder to the arrest of one of its scholars for disorderly conduct—is "newsworthy." At Slate, no Harvard or Yale story proposal will ever be laughed out of a story meeting, no matter how mundane.

The elite press and the tabloid press (in which I include cable populists such as Greta Van Susteren) approach Ivy murder from different angles. * Members of the elite press identify with Harvard and Yale—even if they didn't go there. They may work for someone who went, or wish they'd gone, or hope their children go. The same applies to many Times readers, pre-selling the story on both the supply and demand sides. The murder-happy tabloid press, on the other hand, has always taken special joy in showcasing the pain of the high-and-mighty.

The gap between elite and tabloid narrows every time bad things happen to privileged people. The difference is that tabloids never stop to justify or explain their prurient interest. If this how-the-mighty-fall stuff is your sort of story—and I'm thinking it is, since you've read to the end of this piece—don't bother with the Times. The emotional ride you seek is hawking tickets right now at the Daily News and Post.

******

I envied people who attended Harvard until I met Slate's Timothy Noah, who graduated cum laude in 1980. Whom do you regard as the least impressive Harvard or Yale graduate? Send nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. I Twitter several times a day—so stop by and graze. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type Harvard-Yale in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Corrections, Sept. 18, 2009: This article originally misspelled the first name of Suzanne Jovin. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

This article also originally misspelled the last name of Greta Van Susteren. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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