Hey, did you hear about the Boy in the Box? It seems that 50 years ago, they found a boy, well, in a box, out in the woods in Fox Chase. He was dead. Most of the policemen involved in the case don’t think he was murdered. He was just a dead kid in a box. To this day, the police haven’t been able to identify him, or find out who put him in the box.
Fifty years ago. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and the Vietnam War hadn’t started.
Did you also hear about Tariq Blue? He was 14 years old when he was shot in the head with a shotgun, at the Wharton Square Rec Center, in March of 2006. Or Shadeed Burke, 16 years old when he was shot to death in his home last May? Those are two other unsolved crimes on the books, two of the scores of murders that go unsolved in this area every year. They occurred barely one year ago. The Vietnam War had been over for 30 years, and George W. Bush was president.
All three of these cases concern the unsolved deaths of children, yet only one of them has been the subject of repeated front-page coverage, including a piece in this very magazine four years ago. The 50th anniversary of the unsolved Boy in the Box mystery generated a spate of new coverage recently by the Inquirer and Daily News and City Paper; unearthed was such intriguing business as the report that one of the detectives in the old case had tested positive for cocaine and retired. Wow! How much more interesting could a 50-year-old non-homicide case get?
To put this in perspective: The Violence Policy Center did a recent study that ranked Pennsylvania as the most dangerous state in the country for a young black man to grow up in, and Philadelphia homicide statistics are now catastrophic. Since the Iraq war started in March of 2003, more than 3,200 U.S. servicemen and women have been killed. During that same time, there have been nearly 1,500 homicides in Philadelphia, with most of the victims black and about 10 percent of them children. That means the streets of Philadelphia have now produced roughly half the casualties the military has suffered patrolling Baghdad and environs. Meanwhile, a case of toddler neglect from the Cold War era earns a spot in our newspapers.
This goes beyond racism in the media, or bad editorial choices. It might be time to admit that newspapers have largely become irrelevant. Last year, Warren Buffett, the billionaire who owns the Washington Post, commented that newspapers are “in permanent decline,” a sentiment echoed by almost all media analysts, who cite the availability of up-to-the-minute news on the Internet as the primary cause. But looking at all the hubbub about the Boy in the Box, I have to disagree. I think the reason newspapers are in decline is the same reason that U.S. automakers are in decline, the same reason that most businesses in a capitalist society fail: because they offer a bad or mediocre product.