Slusher: Key lesson with 'Making a Murderer': Think critically
In covering crime and punishment, news organizations often have to fend with fears that a case will be "tried in the newspapers." The recent Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer" moves the debate to the entertainment industry as well. Wherever the intersection of public interest and criminal justice attracts widespread attention, the danger remains the same. So does the remedy: Think critically. Explore varied sources.
It really ought to be the motto of anyone tempted to dive into the passionate world of online commenting or sharing political and social "truths" on social media. Ditto for all of us as we enter the run-up to a political primary and the unruly climate of speculation, distortion and disinformation surrounding the major election that will follow. But for now, let's stick to filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos' riveting 10-part Netflix series as an object lesson.
I loved a Jeff Stahler cartoon in the Daily Herald this week showing a suspected criminal pleading with the court, "What happened to my right to trial by Netflix?" As is appropriate for editorial cartoons, Stahler's panel is a cryptic and clever commentary on the relationship between media and criminal justice. But it also plays off a simplistic reaction to the documentary, which can too easily be viewed as an effort to exonerate Steven Avery, when its clearer target, as the filmmakers acknowledge, is the justice system.
Demos and Ricciardi have emphasized that their show is not about Avery's guilt or innocence but about the system that put him in prison for the rest of his life -- after previously incarcerating him for 18 years for a crime that, unquestionably, someone else committed. Even the show's evocation of that deeper theme is open to scrutiny, particularly since its presumed antagonists -- the police, state's attorneys and courts of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin -- refused to participate in the project, appearing publicly only after its release to defend their behaviors. But, the questions it raises and the warts and scrapes and sores it exposes in the handling of this case, and potentially the handling of any case in America, certainly merit serious discussion around the coffee table, the kitchen table, the office water cooler and in print, broadcast and online forums.
Fostering such discussions is an important function of any serious reality-based news presentation. Where they eventually lead, though, depends on the disciplined thinking of the discussers. After it won an Oscar for documentaries last year, a so-called "hero" of "CitizenFour," about ex-CIA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, bleated that Snowden "can treat the Oscar as one of his biggest endorsements yet." I say, not so fast. "CitizenFour" is a great documentary. It will engross you and make you think. But it is far from an objective piece of work, and my personal reaction at the end was to think less highly of Snowden rather than more. It made for exciting banter at the Slusher household during the holidays, as "Making a Murderer" continues to do, and I appreciate it for that. But, as I constantly emphasize, such works -- like any reporting accused of launching a "trial in the media" -- are not the end of the story. They are just the beginning.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.