City Desk

The Annie Le Media Fest: It’s Not Just About the Ivies

yaleAs Jack Shafer observes in yesterday's column, the Annie Le murder has received the sort of national coverage usually reserved for celebrity deaths and award-show gaffes. To wit, Shafer's incomplete but telling catalog:

The New York Times...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 Times of London, published five time zones away, can't seem to sate its appetite for Annie Le news. Even the proletarian New York tabloids—the Post and the Daily News—have gone ape for the story.

...besides which, a slew of well-sourced and quick-response articles in the university's paper of record, and, by my count, two cover spots in the Washington Post Express.

My problem with Shafer's piece isn't his gripe that crimes at Yale and Harvard receive undue attention. (They do; always have.) I went to Yale—graduated, even—and Shafer's points are well taken. But what the media critic misses is that, when it comes to murder, the Ivy League's disproportionate share of media attention is part of a larger, and more regrettable, trend.

In D.C., the murders of (say) a white, affluent northwest couple like Michael and Virginia Spevak prompt the kind of media bonanza with which no targeted shooting in southeast could possibly compete. Then there's the case of Alice Swanson, a well-educated, middle-class white activist wired into the world of think tanks and nonprofits. A full year after her death, her memorial was still standing—and when, two weeks ago, the mayor's office removed the ghost bike, people freaked. Of course, as one commenter noted:

The law says the memorials come down they come down. If this was am unsightly teddy bear memorial surrounded by liquor bottles and candles for a gun shot victim you would be petioning the Mayor’s Office for it’s removal.

This isn't just about the media; it's about us and our assumptions. As a paper, we only put murders above the fold when they defeat expectations—sensationally or otherwise. As humans, we perk up when a story elicits a double-take, or forces us to reassess presuppositions that may have been bogus to begin with. Would this story have blown up in the mid- to late '80s? Probably not; New Haven was a lot grittier back then. But if a GWU student were kidnapped, brutalized, and discovered a week later in a wall, I'm pretty sure the event would garner more coverage than the corresponding death of a kid in Ward 8. (Ask Cherkis.)

Just saying. Newspapers have been on this treadmill for a long time. If anything, the Annie Le story is one that deserved to make it.


Closing hat-tip: After calling the New York Times "one of several Ivy League house organs," Shafer is wise to acknowledge that at Slate (which fits much the same description), "no Harvard or Yale story proposal will ever be laughed out of a story meeting, no matter how mundane."

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  • Steve Kolowich

    Re: your final ha-tip, Ted:
    Outside the top editorial brass, you can add columnists Timothy Noah (Harvard), Dahlia Lithwick (Yale), Emily Bazelon (Yale), Ron Rosenbaum (Yale), Anne Applebaum (Yale), Daniel Gross (Cornell and Harvard).

  • Leyda

    I'd been following the Annie Le story since her disappearance-- it was unfolding as I sought to find out more about the story. Her wedding was days away; her body was found on her wedding day.

    Of course we're paying attention. I didn't even really care that she went to Yale.

  • Sam

    Agreed that I think this is much more about the fact that it was her wedding day rather than the fact that it's an Ivy League incident. People felt like it was another runaway bride story, and then were saddened to find out that she was actually murdered.

    The fact that both the accused and the victim were so young also helped fan the flames.

  • Mike DeBonis

    I was most fascinated by the strangeness of the circumstances---that she went into the building and never came out and no one could find her inside for days. That it was a Yale laboratory? Whatev.

  • Rose

    Well, what about that University of Vermont student (Michelle Gardner-Quinn) who was kidnapped and found dead along a hiking trail? She received lots of media coverage, and rightfully so, because it was a horrific tragedy. Murder is always going to cause a stir, especially in places you would least expect it to happen.

    And let's not forget the ridiculous amount of coverage that Natalie Holloway received or even that woman who faked her own kidnapping, Jennifer Wilbanks.. hey maybe you can do an editorial about America's love affair with "the missing pretty white girl".

  • Belinda Gomez

    When Bonnie Garland (Yale student, white girl, affluent family) was murdered by her Yale educated poor Latino boyfriend, Yale rallied around him. He got 17 years for a hammer murder.

  • whet moser

    I'm with Mike DeBonis - there are enough dog-bites-man elements that I get the coverage (and am interested in the story myself).

    The non-attention-getting story that surprised me the most was the Milwaukee serial killer.

  • Mike DeBonis

    You have to admit, Jeffrey Dahmer set the standard awfully high for Milwaukee serial killers...

  • KCinDC

    Rose, do Asians count as white now?

    What I was puzzled by was the way NPR yesterday went on and on about security at research labs. If she was killed by someone who worked in her lab, then the security system was irrelevant. Should there be constantly monitored cameras in the labs themselves, with panic buttons, just in case an authorized person attacks a co-worker? Should we have that in non-research workplaces as well?

  • Liam

    The Natalee Holloway case was kinda ridiculous. An unattractive southern rich white girl went off with three men she didn't know, most likely in a drunken and drugged haze. She might have been killed, or drowned herself because she was high. The lesson is probably to teach young girls common sense; it's ok to enjoy yourself, but at least with a sober mind.

  • Shockedin09

    KCinDC - Asians, being the so-called "Model Minority" - are regarded more highly than certain other minorities. As politically-incorrect" that sounds, my statement holds true in countless situations. In many circumstances, the "mainstream" gives Asians "equivalent" status as white people. (For ex., look at how revered the figure skater Michelle Kwan is. Her enormous popularity is/was such that people actually resent Tara Lipinski - a *white* figure skater - for beating Kwan at the 1998 Olympics. That dynamic spoke volumes about how America can embrace the "Model Minority".

    If you "cloned" a skater with Kwan's identical personality and identical credentials - but made her African-American instead of Asian-American - you would see a much less appreciative response to that skater. That skater wouldn't be granted such lofty accolades as Michelle has.)

    So, in a large sense, you are correct. Broadly-speaking, Asians do "count" as white. And in this case, it certainly didn't hurt that Annie Le was pretty, brilliant - and was on the verge of marrying a white/Jewish man. She was a sympathetic and embracable figure - and the story of her murder was seen as worthy of extensive national coverage.

  • MK

    @Shockedin09 - Perhaps you should try taking a few courses in Asian American studies and compare definitive facts rather than making generalizations.

    The Model Minority stereotype is a myth. If this stereotype were true then why is it that average Asian American's income is far less than that of their white colleagues? In fact, this stereotype is quite dangerous because the actual statistics shows us that there are many more Asian Americans who fall under the poverty line than most of us would imagine. Also, your reference of figure skaters is extremely faulty. In ANY competition there will be fans on opposing sides so your example doesn't substantiate much of anything.

    A better gauge of Asian American acceptance is in the media itself. When is the last time you saw a mainstream movie with a leading Asian American that didn't have some stereotypical character? The average (non-Asian) American does not make a distinction between someone who is from Asia and someone who is Asian American so Asians are far from being viewed as white. Perhaps, Asians are generalized as being more compliant and studious but certainly not white. Even if we were to go by the Model Minority standard, it's predominantly accepted as an East Asian (Japan, China and Korea) archetype. Which would not even apply to Annie Le since she is Vietnamese and although she attended Yale, I read that she came from a modest background and was awarded a scholarship.

    There also have been plenty of Asian Americans (as well as other minorities) murdered that have not made the national headlines. As far as I can remember, this is the first time I've seen an Asian American get this kind of coverage.

    Although... all of this is pointless because no matter how much people try to sensationalize this or any other senseless killing, the fact remains that someone (a human being) was brutally murdered and their friends and families have to cope with it so I don't believe trying to understand and sympathize is misguided or unreasonable.

    ... any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. -John Donne

  • Mary

    There is a play I saw about a murder of an undergrad at Yale University in the 1960's and you probably wouldn't guess who the killers are. None other than George Bush and his Skull and Bones pal John Kerry. (She's white, though.) I think it's called The Yale Diaries? Anyway, I thought it very prescient of the writer to have written it and then lo and behold, here we are seeing it on the news. It's like the exact opposite of Law & Order "ripped from the headlines" type episodes.