This month saw the premieres of at least five televised events related to JonBenét Ramsey: Dateline’s Who Killed JonBenét?, CBS’s The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey, A&E’s The Killing of JonBenét: The Truth Uncovered, Investigation Discovery’s JonBenét Ramsey: An American Murder Mystery, and a three-part Dr. Phil interview with Burke Ramsey. And in what will assuredly be classy and respectful, Lifetime is in the midst of producing a TV movie about the case.
When it comes to discussing this case, it’s a bit of a Choose Your Own Adventure. We can discuss the case itself, the whodunits of it all, because it truly is interesting. This is a case that is still 20 years later unsolved and we all have our own opinions on what happened that night. We can discuss the media’s methods for covering this case today versus 1996 and how little has changed—it’s still exploitative, still disgusting. And we can discuss how hard it is to mentally deal with both of these lines of discussion at the same time.
True crime is deeply fascinating to many of us. It’s why the Making a Murderer and first season of Serial were so popular, why My Favorite Murder has shot up the podcast charts so quickly. We are endlessly intrigued by what human beings are capable of doing to other human beings, what makes monsters, how the justice system fails or succeeds along the way. And it’s different today than it was in 1996. Thanks to 24-hour news channels giving way to their more sensational, less respectable offshoots, and to Reddit and social media allowing all of us to quickly and easily read up and share our opinions and findings, we’ve all gotten the chance to live our detective dreams.
It might be a step too far to call it fun, but it is entertaining. It’s interesting. It makes us feel good and scratches some kind of itch, be it for justice or curiosity or feeling like you’re helping to solve this long-unsolved puzzle.
But this onslaught of JonBenét programming was not entertaining. I watched three of these specials. Each had moments that made me physically ill:
- the ID special had an interview with John Mark Karr, the man who confessed to murdering JonBenét. He still insists he did it, and as this clearly unhinged, utterly disconcerting man spewed angry nonsense at the camera, I felt sick.
- the Dr. Phil interviews with Burke Ramsey were so off-putting and sad. This is a man who was either deeply uncomfortable being on-camera, smiling and laughing the entire three-part series, or who does not necessarily have appropriate reactions for whatever reason, as indicated by videos of his police interviews as a child. Maybe a combination of the two. And whatever the reason, he shouldn’t have been on camera. He shouldn’t have done this interview. Whatever the Ramsey family was trying to do, to show, it didn’t work. And I felt sick.
- the CBS special dismissed the long-standing idea that JonBenét was sexually abused. And it didn’t feel like it was for reasons having anything to do with evidence or investigation, but for clearing the network from any legal pushback. And I felt sick then too.
When a child’s murder is used for ratings, you’d think that should be as bad as it gets. That what it is is the issue. Somehow, using a child’s murder for ratings manages to be the least unseemly part of these specials. They gave a sick despicable human the forum and focus he’s wanted for 20 years. They propped up a man who, whether he was involved or not and in whatever form that involvement might have taken, was denied a childhood, thanks to not only the loss of his sister but years and years of speculation that has no doubt plagued him since he was 9. And they altered the narrative, the details of this child’s life and death, to protect a network from added litigation.
Cases like JonBenét Ramsey can and should be investigated and discussed. It’s natural and fair and understandable that we want answers, justice. But these specials were not about answers or justice. They were about exploitation. They were about ratings.
We should all feel sick about that.