The place for legends


Alden Graves

In 1962, John Ford’s last great movie was released. Very few contemporary critics recognized "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" as one of the director’s finest films. James Stewart played Senator Ranse Stoddard, who returns to Shinbone, a town in the west, to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The story is told mostly in an extended flashback, beginning with Stoddard’s arrival in Shinbone fresh out of law school to his final confrontation with the notorious outlaw, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Valance’s death will elevate Stoddard’s name to prominence and pave the way for his future career in public service.

As is often the case in the movies -- and in life -- the dispatching of Liberty Valance didn’t happen quite the way the legend had it. Stoddard, after telling the real story to the local newspaper, urges them to finally print the truth. The editor shakes his head and recites one of the most memorable lines in all of Ford’s canon of films: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

It is makes for a great line of dialogue and it might succinctly sum up the philosophy that provided the pinions for Ford’s entire career. He had no use for rich people, bless his Irish heart, but his conception of abject poverty may have been idealized by his own admiration for the heroic struggles of the poor. The Joads in "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940) and their immediate successors on a descending economic ladder, the Lesters in "Tobacco Road" (1941), tend to stick in the mind more as monuments to human endurance than as victims of gross social inequality.

The presentation of legend as fact is the domain of popular filmmaking. Most people would agree that it has no place in the news media. That has never stopped fanciful stories from being given the imprimatur of truth simply by their appearance in newsprint. The motives can be as transparent as the selling of papers or the boosting of ratings. But legends can also be utilized with no less an ambitious goal than to fundamentally change human behavior.

I was reading a book compiled from period articles from reputable newspapers recently. I was particularly interested in stories that were published in the days immediately following the loss of the Titanic in 1912. The articles seemed determined to cast the liner’s captain, Edward J. Smith, in a heroic mold long before the circumstances of the accident could possibly have been known. I’m always wary of the evocation of heroes because they tend to distract us from the villains.

I have read countless articles and books about that night to remember. Surprisingly enough, after the fatal collision, Captain Smith recedes into the story in much the same way that the iceberg disappeared into the blackness in the ship’s wake. Smith’s tentative, detached behavior throughout the ordeal suggests that he simply could not grasp the enormity of what had happened. He tended to abdicate the responsibility of evacuating the ship to his officers. He was, very likely, on the bridge when the forward funnel collapsed, crushing everything in its path. His body was never recovered.

One newspaper account had a much more glorious end for Captain Smith. The article quoted a passenger in one of the lifeboats as saying that Smith was last seen handing a baby up from the water into the boat and then swimming away, presumably to find another soul to rescue from the frigid sea. His last recorded words to the world: "Be British, boys, be British!"

Over a century removed from the tragedy, I suppose it doesn’t do any more harm than the echo of "Nearer, My God to Thee" drifting across the placid ocean as Titanic poised for her final plunge. It distorts history, but the distortion is so clumsily blatant that no one in 2014 could possibly take it seriously, even if a devastated world in 1912 (not to mention the White Star Line) badly wanted to believe it.

No less an impeccable source of news than the New York Times found itself embroiled in a controversy surrounding its coverage of one of the most consequential murder cases of the last century.

In the cold early morning hours of March 13, 1964 Catherine "Kitty" Genovese, 28, was walking home to her apartment in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York when 29-year-old Winston Moseley stabbed her twice in the back. Her screams for help prompted one man in the neighborhood to shout from his window, scaring the attacker off. Genovese, badly injured, staggered into the doorway of a nearby building.

Moseley returned to his car where he concluded two things: The woman he stabbed probably wasn’t dead and no one in the area was going to help her.

He got out of his car and began searching the area. He found Kitty Genovese cowering at the foot of a staircase. Moseley stabbed her again repeatedly and then raped her. She died on the way to the hospital.

The Times’ coverage transformed the horrifying incident into an urban legend. Almost 40 people living on the street where Genovese was attacked were aware that something was happening. None of them, according to the articles, did anything to stop it. Their cry of "I didn’t want to get involved" was symptomatic of a malaise that plagued the entire country and the Times’ metropolitan editor, A.M. Rosenthal, was determined to expose it.

The blanket condemnation of the residents of Kitty Genovese’s quiet neighborhood wasn’t completely fair but, largely due to the sensationalized coverage, the brutal murder is still cited as a textbook example of the terrible consequences of public apathy.

Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.


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