March 24, 2010

Amanda Knox, Winner of the Media Lottery


In Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, The Lottery, the residents of a small town participate in a lottery that no one seems eager to win.

“Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones...”

The entire town  was involved,  as if it were a square dance, or a Halloween party, but with less enthusiasm.

“The (men) stood together, away from the pile of stones in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed.”

The lottery slips were drawn from an old black box, made from shards of an even older black box.

“Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.”

A brand new lottery box has finally been made, and it’s a beauty. It doesn’t have sides or a top, but it was surely built from shards of black boxes going back to ancient times. It is vast and varied. We’ll call it the “Media Lottery.”

When you won the lottery in Jackson’s story, your fellow townspeople stoned you to death. When you win the Media Lottery, the outcome isn’t much better. 

To see how the Media Lottery works, let’s play a little game. To keep it from becoming personal, we’ll leave you out of it. The Media Lottery has selected a winner: Your daughter. You play Parent, they place Ace Journalists. This is the object of the game: Let’s see if the Ace Journalists can write articles full of lies claiming that your daughter has a wild sex life and murderous psychological makeup, faster than you can refute them.

Here are the rules. The Ace Journalists make money telling the sensationalistic lies. Magazines, newspapers, and websites make money spreading them. The more sensational the lies are, the more money they make. And the longer your daughter rots in prison for a crime she did not commit. 

How do you like the game so far?

This may sound overstated, and I certainly don’t mean that the entire media behaves this way. After all, this is the media. There are many dedicated journalists who have worked hard on this case to get the facts straight and to present them honestly. But much of the Media Lottery game has been played every bit as badly as this in the trial of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito in Perugia, Italy. Moreover, this was done, not only by the tabloid press where it might be expected, but by much of the mainstream media as well. To show this, let’s begin with an excerpt from an article in people.co.uk dated December 6, 2009.

“Amanda Knox: Inside the Sex Crazed World of the American Killer Student”

Nothing sensationalistic about that. Perhaps I have overstated. Read on.

“Evil Amanda Knox was yesterday branded a ‘cold, calculating man-eater’ by a teacher who was shocked at the killer's promiscuous lifestyle. Sonia Giugliarell said the sex-crazed American was bedding FIVE lovers when she was arrested for murdering fellow student Meredith Kercher, 21. Language tutor Sonia, 41, said: ‘There was a demon inside her that nothing could control. Knox slept with different men to make herself feel important and powerful.”

To create this smear, the writer has interviewed some language tutor who barely knew “evil” Amanda, and who is apparently moonlighting as a psychiatrist, or a mind reader. Nice. But where did the tutor get these ideas? Even nicer.

Doctor’s Call
A month or so after Amanda was captured and imprisoned, she got some bad news from the doctor. Well, not a real doctor, just someone the polizia or prosecutor sent to pretend to be a doctor. This impersonator informed Amanda that she was HIV positive, carrying the AIDS virus and essentially sentenced to death. It was a lie. A shameful, baseless lie, apparently intended to break her. These same people deny using undue pressure to coerce Amanda during her interrogation.

How did Amanda  respond to this terrible lie? She did the right thing. At the request of the “doctor,” she listed every sexual partner she had been with in her entire life so that they could be notified that they might have been exposed to the AIDS virus, and could receive treatment to slow it’s advance. She also wrote about it in her prison diary, in an effort to come to grips with her fears. She’d been with about the average number of partners, but in much of the press her entire sexual history was collapsed into her two months in Italy.

In spite of Amanda’s cooperation, the polizia did not get what they wanted most, she did not list Rudy Guede, the murderer of Meredith Kercher. This was because Amanda barely knew him. The HIV lie became just another cruelty inflicted on her, one more legal and ethical violation among many. But, not to let a good lie go to waste, they leaked her diary to the press, in violation of Italian law. The article above is just one example of how this leak became a slander in the press. That article came out nearly two years after the initial leak, plenty of time for the reporter to get the facts straight, if he’d had an interest in accuracy. 

The Book of Barbie
Some of the sharpest stones thrown in the Media Lottery of Amanda Knox have been hurled by travel and dining columnist Barbie Latza Nadeau. For that reason, and because she has written a book that is just as bad, let’s look at several of her pieces.

She has almost completely ignored the actual murderer, Rudy Guede. Not much of a story there, and certainly nothing to build her career on. The real facts of the case are fairly ordinary, and far less marketable than manufactured ones. She has only paid cursory notice to the other accused, Raffaele Sollecito. But Barbie seems to have a special fascination for Amanda. One source who has watched her in Perugia called it “a hatred.”

Here’s what Barbie did with Amanda’s diary in a Newsweek online article dated July 14, 2008.

“And by her own account in a prison diary leaked to the media, she details her sexual escapades with at least seven men she'd been with in her three months in Italy before her arrest.  She even wrote that she might have HIV and then she uses a process of elimination to narrow down who might have given it to her.”

Think about this paragraph for a moment. The contempt for the truth is breathtaking. It begins with “she details her sexual escapades,” an expression designed to titillate readers. Amanda does no such thing. Her diary comprises 80 pages of clinging to hope, fighting back despair, proclamations of innocence, belief that her innocence will ultimately prevail, and pleading “please, please, please” let her regain her freedom and resume her life. It is painful and heart wrenching to read. No objective reader could go through Amanda’s prison diary and describe it as “detailing sexual escapades.”

Barbie moves on to “She even wrote that she might have HIV…” as if it were a whimsical thought, yet another indication of Amanda’s wild behavior, rather than a horrific torment, a terrible fear.

How would you feel in her position? You’re in jail in a foreign country for a murder you did not commit, facing likely conviction anyway, and spending the rest of your life in prison. But, you’ve just been told that you are HIV positive, so, your life won’t be that long. Good time for carefree sex talk.

Here is some of what Amanda actually wrote in her diary as she went through the agonizing process of trying to determine whether she might have contracted HIV:

“I had a raging headache because this is by far the worst experience of my life. I’m in prison for a crime I didn’t commit, & I might have HIV.

I don’t want to die. I want to get married and have children. I want to create something good. I want to get old. I want my time. I want my life. Why why why? I can’t believe this.

Thirdly, I don’t know where I could have got HIV from.... “

This is where Amanda tries to figure out how she might have been exposed.

“Oh please please let it be a mistake. Please oh please let it not be true. I don’t want to die.”

Judge for yourself. Look at what Amanda wrote, and how Barbie described it. Are these the words of a young woman “detailing her sexual escapades” as if it were a lark, or has Barbie Nadeau seriously misstated matters? A young woman was desperately hoping that her life wasn’t ending tragically, while Barbie hurled stones at her with a mixture of self righteous moral indignation, and glee. 

PM Mignini, Amanda’s prosecutor and the prime architect of the campaign to destroy her, was interviewed recently by an Italian reporter about the HIV lie. Here is how he evaded the issue:

Paglieri: “And let us speak of the ‘HIV.’ Amanda, while in prison was told that she was HIV positive and she was asked to make a list of her former lovers to warn them of the danger. Then she discovered that it was a "false positive" and became suspect that it was a trick.”

PM Mignini: "I did not ask anything of the kind of Amanda. We always have the utmost respect for suspects. Why should I?"

Paglieri: “Why then, was the list all over the press which helped to create a negative image of the girl as an "easy" woman?”

PM Mignini: "Nobody has created an image of Amanda as an "easy" girl. Why would I need to?"


Mignini says “I did not ask anything of the kind....” Who said he did? She was asked by the fake doctor. He further says, “Nobody has created an image of Amanda as an ‘easy’ girl.” How can he possibly make such a statement after two years of press smears on two continents? Read the media quotes in this article to decide whether anyone has created such an image.

Barbie Nadeau hasn’t limited herself to distortions fed to her by the prosecution. She also makes up her own material. In the Daily Beast on December 4, 2009 she writes about the announcement of conviction:

“At one point the stepmother of Raffaele Sollecito, Knox’s former boyfriend who was sentenced to 25 years for his part in the murder, yelled out “F__k you!”

No one else in the courtroom heard those words. Everyone else heard “Forte, Raffaele!” Italian, for “Strength, Raffaele.” That makes sense, the curse doesn’t. Were it not for Barbie’s lack of concern for accuracy, this error could have been easily checked, and corrected , simply by asking other observers.

Here’s a clever attack by Barbie, dated December 6, 2009 in the Daily Beast. 
“When the two got into the prison van at the end of each hearing, the press had bets on whether or not they got to have sex the whole way back, or whether they just talked dirty to each other through the bars.”

Imagine riding back to prison in a police van after spending the day on trial for murder. This, in Barbie’s mind, is a sexy atmosphere. The passage paints yet another nasty picture of sex-crazed fiends, and does so without any evidence. She didn’t actually say that the two had sex in the back of the van, or talked dirty, only that “the press had bets,” so it leaves no tracks. How can it be refuted?

Well, for one thing, they didn’t ride in the same van. They were transported in two separate vehicles, so the whole notion is fabricated. It states nothing factual while slamming Amanda  just the same. “The press had bets….” Which press? Can you refute this smear, faster than Barbie can tell it? 

I have my own speculation as to what Amanda and Raffaele would have said to each other if they actually had ridden back to prison together after each day in court. Through the bars of the police van, to the bars of Capanne prison. The conversation is purely hypothetical, but it would go something like this:

“I can’t believe this is happening. It just goes on and on.”
“Try to stay strong. Try to keep your spirits up. We’ll make it through this.”
“How can they believe that we did it? There’s no evidence!”
“They don’t. They’re in it to save face. Or for the fame, money....”
“Who would do that? Who would ruin our lives, our lives, just to make a fast buck?”
“Barbie Nadeau.”

Like I said, it’s purely hypothetical.

Remember Barbie’s two false options from this, each as bad or worse than the other, because this is a trick she has played before. Take a look at the title of her piece in the Daily Beast,  Dec 6, 2009.

The New Face of Evil 
Is the real Amanda Knox the sex-obsessed, cold-blooded murderer that the prosecution depicted? Or worse?”

This raises a few questions. Shouldn’t there be another possibility? Like, innocent? How is it possible to be “worse” than a “sex-obsessed, cold-blooded murderer?” Would you call this fair, balanced reporting? Could it be that Barbie is more excited about advancing her own prospects by sensationalizing someone else’s misfortune than she is about factual reporting? Is she merely determined to make the move from travel reporting into real journalism, or is she is hurling stones at the winner of the Media Lottery with real enthusiasm?

“Knox's infamy will only continue to grow as details from the trial make titillating headlines for the next year or longer.”– Barbie

For an Ace Journalist on the case, these words are golden. Growing infamy! Titillating headlines! A year or longer!  Think of all the stories, the exposure, the fame! Of course, for an innocent young woman being stoned to death by a media mob, they are less exhilarating.

A final entry from the Book of Barbie. It highlights her taste for getting it sensational, at the expense of getting it right.

2009-02-18 The Daily Beast “Sex and Murder in Italy”
Barbie misquotes Amanda’s diary as follows:

“In one entry, she describes the night of the crime: ‘That night I smoked a lot of marijuana and I fell asleep at my boyfriend’s house. I don’t remember anything. But I think it’s possible that Raffaele went to Meredith’s house, raped her and then killed. And when he got home, while I was sleeping, he put my fingerprints on the knife. But I don’t understand why Raffaele would do that.’ (This is one of several different accounts she has given of her whereabouts, earlier claiming that she was in the villa and heard Meredith’s screams.)”

Barbie wrote this in February of 2009. She had a year to get the quote straight, but failed. The quote she used is from a bad Italian-to-English translation, of a bad English-to-Italian translation (I’m not making this up) of Amanda’s actual diary entry. The real quote from Amanda’s private diary had long been a matter of public record when Barbie wrote this piece because it was leaked to the press by the Perugian authorities. What Amanda actually wrote, taken from her diary word-for-word, meant  the exact opposite of Barbie’s version.

“ So unless Raffaele decided to get up after I fell asleep, grabbed said knife, went over to my house, used it to kill Meredith, came home, cleaned the blood off, rubbed my fingerprints all over it, put it away, then tucked himself back into bed, and then pretended really well the next couple of days, well, I just highly doubt all of that."

“I just highly doubt all of that.” Amanda clearly explains that it doesn’t make any sense that Raffaele would have done such a thing. It would be impossible, and preposterous. Barbie, and others, turned it on it’s head, making it sound like an accusation of Raffaele. It served her purpose, and that purpose evidently wasn’t the truth.

Finally, Barbie refers to “several accounts” that Amanda gave, apparently  expanding her interrogation without a lawyer or translator into multiple events. But, not to sink to this same level, Barbie gives only one account. When she makes an error, even a specific, indisputable error like this one, she never seems to do anything to correct it. She has apparently never issued a retraction, correction, or clarification for a single one of her many reporting errors on this case.

A Free Press
These appalling distortions are sad, unfortunate, but, hey, the cost of doing business in a free society with a free press. Right? Perhaps, but, here’s the thing. The jury in this trial was not sequestered, they were free to read every piece of trash published. They had lots of time to do so, since the trial met, at most, two days a week.

The Italian press, working with an ample stream of leaked material gave them plenty of trash to read. Here’s an example from the Italian newspaper, The Republic, just five days after the murder.

“Amanda is a liar. For four days, she never stopped lying. And perhaps she will continue for the next few hours. At least in part. The morning the corpse of Meredith was discovered, she is "surprised" to see neighbors and police while she's "shocked" going back into the house to "discover" what happened there in her absence.

All of this was stated as fact. Amanda was labeled a “liar” just five days after the murder, making “innocent until proven guilty” seem like a quaint relic of the past. Here are some article titles from the Italian press in the days after the murder, to give a flavor for how the Italian media lottery treated Amanda Knox.

“Amanda wanted only sex"

“Amanda’s DNA on the Crime Knife” ("It's the weapon that killed Meredith,")


It has been claimed that the judges and jurors in this case were somehow immune to influence, untainted by the media, as if they weren’t human beings, and didn’t really pay attention to what they read and heard. It has been said that they were “professionals” who could rule without bias. Yet 6 out of 8 of them were ordinary citizens, not professionals, and the pattern of rulings of the professional judges has been one of consistent prejudice against Amanda and Raffaele.

It is a fundamentally different system of “justice” and a fundamentally unfair one, when the prosecutors, polizia, judges, jury, press, and stone-hurling townsfolk, are all part of the same tightly knit, freely communicating , justice inflicting community. But lest we in America feel superior, we must remember that we had something similar for many years. We called them “lynch mobs.”

The Media Mantra of Guilt

A “mantra” is a sound, word, or phrase that is recited to accomplish a transformation. Usually the change is of a spiritual nature, but here the media mantras have been recited for less lofty purposes.

Many of the public’s misconceptions about this case come from reports that, while incorrect, have been repeated over, and over again. These reports, like a spiritual mantra gone terribly wrong, have transformed two innocent young people into murderous demons. An example of this is the absolutely wrong report that Amanda  nonchalantly took a shower in a bathroom awash in blood the morning after the murder.

Here’s a mainstream media report from Vanity Fair, May 12, 2008.
“She had found the bathroom she shared with Meredith smeared with so much blood it looked as though a butcher had attempted washing up and then given up the task. Amanda was puzzled. ‘It seemed a bit strange to me for the simple reason that all us girls are pretty clean and neat, and we clean up the bathroom,’ she later reflected.”

It sounds terrible. Amanda  blissfully showered amid a vast sea of blood, a scene right out of The Shining. This has been repeated in article after article. It is nonsense. It is a kind of “mashup” that combines Amanda’s reflection on the tiny amount of blood that she actually saw, with a photograph of the bathroom when it was coated with a pink, protein visualization tool days later. In actual fact, when Amanda went to use the shower she shared with Meredith there was only a small amount of blood in the bathroom. It was almost entirely on the bathmat , where Rudy left his footprints, and a small amount he left smeared on a faucet handle. The actual scene was only mildly concerning, exactly as she described.

It’s just one example, but this single distortion, repeated many times in many venues, was enough to convince countless people that Amanda Knox must be guilty. Yet the truth might still have won out, and Amanda might now be free, or at least widely understood to be innocent, if that were all there was. But this was just one distortion among the many mantras of guilt recited. The media also reported a “cleanup” that did not happen, performed with bleach that was never purchased. It reported that Amanda was sighted with Rudy, which never happened. It said that she engaged in lurid talk with Raffaele, somehow overheard in English by a clerk who spoke only Italian, while buying sexy lingerie. The simple fact that she needed clean underwear after being kept out of her apartment for three days was not as compelling a story. 

But the most devastating distortion of all has been the endless repetition in the media of the mantra-sound bite “the knife had Amanda’s DNA on the handle, and Meredith’s on the blade.” This phrase has about as much probative value to the case as the phrase “drill, baby drill” has to a viable energy policy. First recited menacingly to Amanda by the “Capo” in Capanne prison even as he repeatedly hit on her, it was adopted by mainstream reporters and Nancy Grace alike.

A sound bite treatment of a complex technical issue, the simplistic phrase takes whole paragraphs to dispute it. Reporter after reporter has fallen for the temptation and hurled the stone, solemnly reciting the misleading, but dramatic sound bite, while ignoring the science that contradicts it.

We’ve discussed the real evidence about the knife in detail elsewhere, so, just briefly:

The knife was an ordinary kitchen knife from Raffaele’s kitchen drawer. Amanda used it for cooking. Her DNA on the handle has as much meaning as her DNA on the can opener in the same drawer. The knife did not match most of Meredith’s wounds, and neither did it match a knife-shaped blood stain at the scene. Tests showed that the knife didn’t have any blood on it. The vanishingly faint DNA profiles that appeared after exceeding the machine sensitivity limits were clearly from contamination during handling or processing. Simply put, “the knife” was not the murder weapon. It was a kitchen implement that should have been left with the can openers and spatulas.

Fifteen Minutes

Again, and again, and again, the winner of the Media Lottery has been soiled with lies, smears, and distortions that have no basis in fact. It has made for the daunting task of fighting an endless cavalcade of lurid smears with the powerful, but far less interesting weapon of the truth.

If the truth doesn’t work , even for Amanda, even for someone with family, friends, loved ones, and thousands of total strangers all pulling for her, who can it work for? How can it work for the many other “harmless, gentle soul, misplaced inside a jail,” in Bob Dylan’s words.  Have we reached the point in history where truth is no longer transcendent? Have we reached the point where all that matters is a lurid story?

Amanda  Knox is just one victim of the much broader phenomena of character assassination by the Media Lottery.  They have made millions of dollars by destroying her reputation and her life. The destruction wasn’t a senseless crime, it was driven by the profit motive.

These lies didn’t just happen on their own. They were twisted into shape from leaked information, or created from whole cloth. They were honed by experts for optimal shock and maximum sales, and smeared over the pages of both tabloid press and mainstream news by journalists, editors, and publishers. All of this was done by people. People who have sons and daughters of their own. People who should have known better.

Andy Warhol famously said “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” We may now be coming to an age where everyone will be guilty for 15 minutes. And they will spend the rest of their lives trying to prove their innocence.

Thank you to the Amanda supporters who helped research this article.
Copyright, 2010  Mark C. Waterbury, Ph.D.