Unpublishing Crime · Robert Downey Jr. · Amanda Knox
Plus: a missing person podcast
|Best Evidence||Jan 26||4||3|
Every couple weeks, I get an email from the same lawyer. It’s to an email address associated with a publication I founded but no longer have a hand in, about stories I didn’t write. The attorney’s presumable business model (though, who knows, maybe these are pro bono cases) appears to be based in “online reputation management.”
The emails request the removal of crime stories on behalf of the people named in them (typically, arrestees or suspects). The emails contain PDF attachments, on legal letterhead, arguing that to keep these stories up would cause continued “harm and
discomfort” to the subjects and their family. They’re not legal letters in the threatening sense — though they come from a lawyer, they’re clearly marked as “courtesy request”s. Every time I get one from her, I wonder how much money she’s making in this line of business, and I wonder how often publications acquiesce.
Sometimes she claims it’s my ethical obligation to take down these old stories, citing the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics Minimize Harm principles. Other times, she directs me to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a newspaper which she claims “no longer even publishes the names (or photos) of people arrested.” A cursory Google will reveal that that is not the case.
But, like I said, those stories aren’t my problem — it just looks like the lawyer saw my former affiliation, or maybe my name on an archived masthead, and added me to the list of whoever receives these emails.
I thought about that lawyer when I saw this Nieman Lab piece Monday. According to Lab director Joshua Benton, the Boston Globe has announced a new program called “Fresh Start: Revisiting the Past for a Better Future.” Here’s the paper’s pitch:
Going forward, the Globe will allow all people to appeal their presence in older stories published on our websites. We’ll consider each case individually and, if warranted, take steps to update the story and protect the privacy of the individual. These steps may include republishing the story with new information or removing the story from Google searches. All final decisions will ultimately come down to the Globe’s editorial discretion.
Of course, my first thought was that now lawyers like my one-sided correspondent have a new offering for clients, as the FAQ is dense and even I, a person who types on the internet all day long, felt daunted by the Globe’s appeal form. Attorneys will have to get a bit tricky if that’s their plan, however, as the form says up top that “Submissions cannot be made on behalf of another person. Lawyers may not submit this form on behalf of clients.” In other words, don’t fill out the form with your work email, counselor — set up a fake gmail or something if that’s your thing.
Benton makes some great points on why removing these stories might be a great idea — a truly fresh start for folks who made a bad decision or two years ago, and have been haunted by it ever since. But I have to be honest: all this looks like to me is a potential new cottage industry from the oft-scammy industry of online reputation management, one that preys on many of those same bad-decision-makers who are desperate for a cleaner slate. It seems like a well-intended effort that opens the door to some extremely predatory business practices.
And that’s not the only reason to raise criticism of the effort — in the Globe’s own coverage, it quotes a lawyer who asks “is it fair that only the people who raise their hand get a fresh start?” And, one last thing: this is a publication that, citing “significant” revenue losses, just laid off more workers. Who’s going to be handling all these appeals? A journalist who, otherwise, might be reporting? There’s a lot to puzzle about here, and from outside, I wonder if the Globe has fully thought through all the real-world implications of its plan to start erasing the worthiest of candidates from its archives of true crime. — EB
There’s a new podcast that isn’t about a missing woman. Sorry for the dog-bites-man-ishness of that lead sentence, but some days I think that if I have to type “[name] looks into the [time period]-old cold case disappearance of [ALWAYS a lady name], who was last seen on [year likely prior to the 2020s],” I will disappear, myself.
So, Dad’s Gone isn’t about a missing woman: it’s about Jorn Jensen, an Australian man who vanished back in 2017 following a seaside lunch with his family. Back in 2019, WA Today did a deep dive into the case, writing then that Jensen’s daughter believes that someone “set [it] up to look like he committed suicide,” but that police haven’t followed those leads to their satisfaction. It’s that daughter we hear from in the show: according to a press release from the show’s producers, Jensen’s “daughter Belle Wilmer tells the tragic tale, including a blood-stained kitchen, alleged missing money and what may have happened.”
The first of its five episodes is out now; you can check Dad’s Gone out here. — EB
There was a lot of movement in true-crime TV world over the last few days. Let’s take a whirlwind tour!
Sky has a new slate of true crime docs coming, Deadline reports. There’s the self-explanatory The Bambers: Murder at the Farm, and (eyebrow cocks) the “drama-documentary” Liverpool Narcos, about the 1980s drug boom in the UK city. “Drama-documentary,” eh? Not sure about that.
Robert Downey Jr. and wife Susan Downey just snapped up the TV rights to Helltown, an as-yet unpublished novel with a true-crime thrust. Not to be confused with the Travel Channel movie of the same name, according to Boston.com the book is about Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer’s “shared obsession with Provincetown serial killer Antone ‘Tony’ Costa, who was convicted of murdering two women in Provincetown in 1969,” dubbed the Cape Cod Vampire by prosecutors. As I type this, I am remembering how much I love Downey when he goes super-dark. I don’t know if there’s a place for him to do that in this show, but here’s hoping.
Between Black and Blue is back on Amazon Prime, but this time, you’ll have to pay for it. This is that docuseries about Michael Borrelli and Robert Davis, two New York detectives who were wrongly convicted of a 1975 homicide. It was on Prime for a bit, then disappeared, and now it’s back, priced at $9.99 for the four-episode series.
The trailer for The United States vs. Billie Holiday is out. The Hulu film from Lee Daniels stars Audra Day as Holiday, and is (somewhat improbably) based on TED-talker Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (The Opposite of Addiction is Connection). According to a 2019 Deadline report, “the pic follows Holiday … during her career as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation led by black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher, with whom she had a tumultuous affair.” It’ll drop on February 26.
Amanda Knox and I are on opposite sides, yet again. In an interview that ran Sunday, Knox, whom you likely know all about, dropped a number of widely-reblogged sound bites, including the revelation that (per the unpaywalled Page Six) the only reason she took on the job of host for podcast The Truth About True Crime is because the genre that we’re all super-into “is very badly done.”
True crime, she says, is “very salacious, it revels in tragedy and trauma and horror.” Her motive for working within the genre is because “I wanted to do the opposite, because I was a character in a morality play.”
This is interesting to me, because one of the reasons I first approached Sarah to write the publication you’re reading now is because I think it’s gotten so goddamned good! Every day we get to write about well-considered, revelatory true-crime properties that help us see the world in a new way. and that’s an act of joy. I cannot imagine devoting my time to a genre that I think sucks (even if it is just to police it). Life is too precious, and too short. I am honestly surprised that Knox doesn’t feel the same way, as it seems like her harrowing life experiences would prompt her to mull how to best use the time she has on this earth. If true crime doesn’t bring her joy, or at least satisfaction…then, why fuck with it? — EB
Wednesday on Best Evidence: I know Sarah has some longreads she’s been waiting to spring on you…