Contrarian: Thinking Inside the Box

The popularity of the Boy in the Box murder case exposes the mainstream media for what it is: dead

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.

As the country has split along red state/blue state lines, the dailies have tried to appeal to everybody, to keep up their circulation. Determined not to seem shrill or unbalanced, they’ve adopted a Ward Cleaver persona, the kindly, tolerant, reasonable dad. In the process, they’ve been kind and reasonable to people who didn’t deserve it, allowing one egregious offense after another to be perpetrated by federal and local governments with little or no news coverage. The New York Times, aware of the awfulness of its coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war, actually issued an apology to its readers in 2004. Most newspapers, including the Inquirer and Daily News, haven’t had the class to do that.

Remember Private Jessica Lynch, and her week of celebrity? By the time it became apparent that Lynch had done little other than get captured, that her rescue was neither daring nor dangerous, and that the only real hero in the affair was an Iraqi doctor rather than an American soldier, Lynch had retreated back into obscurity, and the story was forgotten. There were no admissions of guilt from all the newspapers that had printed the lies in detail, no apologies for fabricating facts out of thin air to support the myth of war. Nor, it seemed, was there any demand for culpability. It’s like we didn’t mind being lied to, or at least understood why it was done.

But little by little, pieces of credibility have been chipped away from mainstream daily newspapers. Remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, for whom the dailies, in the interest of bipartisanship, printed a litany of fictitious anecdotes from men who, with one exception, had never even met John Kerry? Remember the Terry Schiavo “controversy,” which wouldn’t have been a controversy at all if newspapers had published poll results showing 80 percent of Americans thought the government should stay out of it? But that would have meant editors who appeared to be taking a stand. Is it really any wonder newspapers are in decline? It’s not the Internet. It’s because editors and journalists forgot, and continue to forget, that their job is to report actual news that corresponds with real facts.

This is why the Boy in the Box is the perfect storm of bad journalism. With one bad editorial choice, newspapers have managed to exaggerate the importance of white crime victims and trivialize the devastating rise in minority crime. This is the type of story that’s supposed to “bring us together as a community,” or some such crap. What the story actually does is manipulate us into feeling emotion for an incident in the distant past, while we ignore the fact that the same thing is going on tenfold in the present.    

For me, the Boy in the Box story is a symbol of the day newspapers just stopped caring. Their contempt for their readership has finally reached the point where they figure they can just phone it in, spew out some sentimental claptrap and hope nobody notices that it isn’t news. Perhaps “Boy in the Box” will become a term editors use the way TV executives use “Jump the shark,” meaning it’s time to just fill the newspaper with space-taking insignificance. Maybe in the future, newspaper editors will say something like, “Hey, should we do another story on the old guy who collects stamps, or is that too ‘Boy in the Box’?”

I wonder how the 50th anniversaries of Tariq Blue’s and Shadeed Burke’s murders will be covered in the press, in 2056. Will this magazine send a young reporter out to interview an octogenarian detective who remembers finding Tariq’s body on a basketball court, shot below the eye? Will there be candlelight vigils and appeals to the Vidocq Society to reopen cases where the perpetrators are most likely dead? Somehow, I think not. My guess is, those anniversaries will pass without a mention. But we can look forward to a centennial retrospective of the White Boy in the Friggin’ Box.

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