John Mark Karr's recent media blitz, culminating in his Larry King Live performance, officially inaugurates a new and troubling era in pop-culture media celebrity.
In an ironic flesh-and-blood extension of the increasingly realistic Internet universe, one can now court fame, on a global scale, not just by committing bad acts—but by doing absolutely NOTHING.
Media manipulation has become its own end. Claims = deeds. Perception is reality.
Criminals (and psychopaths in general) are, of course, no strangers to celebrity. Examples range from Billy the Kid to Jack the Ripper, Bonnie and Clyde, Adolph Hitler, Charles Manson, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and the Columbine killers.
Their atrocities are legion, and their names synonymous with the worst inclinations of human character.
That said, their unspeakable crimes make them legitimate objects of coverage. The questions are salient and worthy of public discourse. What made any of these madmen (or sick kids, in the case of Columbine) tick? What chemical aberrations, early-life traumas or perversions of character shaped their later actions? (Indeed, the Ripper's very identity remains one of the great true-crime mysteries of all time.)
There's no point in lambasting the media for endlessly probing the psyches of such figures and rehashing their exploits in grisly detail. Human tragedy is part of the human condition. If one denies interest, that's a lie on the face of it. We're all intrigued and horrified by such things. The media would be derelict in its duties not to provide the maximum and best possible coverage. (To mash up some clichés of my business, gore sells papers and keeps eyeballs glued to screens. Victorian Brits were obsessed by Jack in their day; there's no point in denying human nature.)
Which brings me to John Mark Karr.
What the hell is he famous for, anyway? Why is he making the talk-show rounds and (no doubt) negotiating with publishers and producers to perpetuate his story into even more media channels?
As far as I can tell—and this is the key point—he is famous, quite literally, for saying that he might have done something. Or rather, for implying— or not denying—that he did something.
That "something," of course, is the gruesome murder of JonBenet Ramsey a decade ago.
Once you get past the years of tabloid headlines, shoddy bestsellers and chat-room speculation, it boils down to this: Someone killed a little girl. Period.
That someone was not John Mark Karr.
The fact that he did not, indeed could not, have committed the crime was fairly well established before the cops even hustled him out of Thailand. He was nowhere near Colorado the night of the murder. Even his ex-wife, who apparently loathes the man, spoke up immediately on this point.
It was essentially proven on day one of the Karr story that he was just a pinch-faced sociopath perpetuating a hoax for reasons best worked out in psychotherapy.
Put another way: He's a sick jerk, unworthy of our time and attention.
So what happens? He becomes the scoop du jour, even after it's clear the closest he probably ever got to JonBenet was in his twisted fantasies.
His well-coached Larry King appearance was priceless. Quips such as "I never gave a definitive overt yes or no to anything and I never said I did anything" and "I don't recall ever saying that I did harm a child" came straight from MediaSpeak 101.
I couldn't help thinking: It's like he's playing an online game, creating a virtual world complete with details, time lines and dialogue.
And Karr didn't even claim he killed her. He just declined to deny it. And that was enough for the frenzy to begin. He sort of implies he might have done something awful: Game on!
Here's the thing: This isn't taking place in cyberspace, with avatars and point tallies and comforting "Game Over" messages when the action gets too intense.
It's real. It's for keeps. A child is dead.
Karr's sick in the head, so I can't really expect him to grasp any of the implications. The mainstream media, however, should know better. At the very least, we should have enough professional pride to loathe being manipulated in such fashion.
Karr was a one-day (one-hour?) story at best. He did nothing. He admitted nothing. Ultimately, his mass-media persona is now more "real" than the actual human being. Moving forward, he owes his entire identity to the global communications net. "John Mark Karr" was not so much born as created. Media manipulation and the acquisition of fame, in which the news establishment was openly (even ravenously) complicit, are his sole real-life achievements.
Even Andy Warhol, predicting 15 minutes of fame for the entire human race, actually required his retinue to accomplish something before proclaiming them media stars. (Sure, they were mostly bad actors, self-consciously hip models and visual artists of dubious merit, but at least they generated some rationale for grabbing our attention. They weren't ciphers or avatars. They were ultimately people. Their "achievements," no matter how questionable or unappealing, were all too real.)
Is this column just feeding the whole Karr frenzy? View it as a cautionary tale. Posting notices in the town square won't get the message out these days. A lesson Karr learned all too well.