'The Witness' Exposes the Dangers of Sensationalized News

Fifty years after Kitty Genovese’s death, her brother uncovers a shocking truth.

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It was a murder that rocked New York City — and eventually the country — to the core. On March 3, 1964, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old barmaid, was stabbed to death outside of her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens. It was a senseless crime turned infamous by an article published two weeks later in The New York Times, one declaring that Kitty’s very public murder had been witnessed from their apartment windows by 38 people who did nothing to save the woman. Outrage began pouring in from other newspapers and residents of the city, not over the death of Kitty or the man who murdered her, but over the alleged indifference (reported then as fact) of these witnesses.

This bystander effect became known as “Genovese Syndrome,” and it turned Kitty into a macabre celebrity. Fictionalized versions of her death appeared on Perry Mason and Law and Order, her death is constantly used as an example of “good men doing nothing,” and it even appears in a panel of Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen, becoming the catalyst for the anti-hero Rorschach. The murder of Kitty Genovese made a significant impact on America, which some might argue was for the better, but one question still lingers: was any of it true?

The Witness picks up on this question as director James D. Solomon, the writer behind 2010’s The Conspirator, follows Genovese’s younger brother, Bill, on his journey to uncover what really happened to his sister. For Bill, the truth has always been elusive. Kitty’s death had a seismic impact on his family; his parents never recovered from the shock of his sister’s death and in turn, due to the infamy of her death, Kitty’s life was never celebrated or discussed. She lived on in family pictures and home movies, a silent specter haunting the fringes of family discussions, the unfulfilled promise of her life too painful to entertain.

Part of Bill’s journey is to recoup this decades long familial blackout of Kitty’s life. His own children, who are featured in the documentary, openly admit to learning about their aunt in school textbooks without realizing their connection to her. Bill admits that the family avoided the trial for Kitty’s killer, and what he did learn as a boy was from stolen glances at television and newspaper articles at a neighbor’s home. Through interviews with co-workers, friends, and Kitty’s partner, Mary Ann Zielonko, Kitty emerges from family photos and grainy videos as a young woman full of potential: she was funny and loved by her peers, happy with the life she was creating in Queens while sometimes struggling to accept her own sexuality. Bill hand-guides this journey, allowing it to be a loving tribute to the complicated and charismatic woman that Kitty was rather than an attempt to drag sensationalized facts to the light to somehow justify her death.

The press accounts of Kitty’s death make up the other half of Bill’s search for the truth. Could 38 people really have ignored a young woman’s screaming for her life? The truth, as Bill discovers, is more shocking than the sensationalized tabloid headlines. As Bill sifts through witness statements taken by the police, he finds many people did intervene when they saw Kitty being attacked from their window. Several calls were made to the police and one witness called out of his window at the attacker, scaring the man away temporarily. When Kitty rounded the corner to try and enter her apartment door, the witnesses could no longer see her and assumed she had made it to safety. Unfortunately, her killer, who had been waiting in his car, re-emerged and attacked her again in the foyer of her apartment, this time fatally. But Kitty did not die alone. While most of the witnesses called in court had passed away, Bill discovers one woman who is still alive, Sophia Farrar, a neighbor and close friend of his sister who testified in court that she came to Kitty’s aid and cradled the dying woman during her final moments. It is a stunning discovery in part because it is conspicuously absent in every newspaper account of the time.

Armed with this new evidence, Bill sits down with media heavyweights to try and understand why his sister’s death was misreported across the board. When questioning 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace, the legendary journalist can only shrug his shoulders and agree that the story of the 38 who did nothing was a media creation. Wallace concedes he picked up on it “because it was taken seriously by The New York Times…back then particularly [they] had the kind of clout. It’s a fascinating, troubling story, and it undoubtedly sold newspapers.” When Bill sits down with Gabe Pressmen of NBC News he gets more insight into the media’s complicity in the creation of “Genovese Syndrome.” Pressman offers the reporter’s notepad of Daniel Meenan, a well-known radio news reporter in New York City, who looked into the story and wrote up notes after interviewing the witnesses, many of whom thought the attack to just be “a drunken brawl between man and wife.” But Meenan’s notes also touch on the Times’ account, as he writes about an unnamed reporter who asked why the story didn’t include the fact that many witnesses did not believe there was a murder taking place. Martin Gansburg, author of the infamous Times piece replied, “it would’ve ruined the story.”

The legacy of Gansburg’s conscious omission extends far beyond the impact Kitty Genovese’s death has made on American pop and crime culture. Bill, who has been interviewing people from his wheelchair, finally touches on the loss of his legs, which were blown off in Vietnam. His decision to enlist was inspired by the death of the older sister he admired and the 38 witnesses who did nothing to help her — an account he now knows to be a fabrication. It’s a powerful and timely revelation as we collectively sift through the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election and the fake news articles that played a part in shaping the outcome. Our 24-hour news cycle and the misleading headlines it often produces have very real roots in the infamy fabricated by the reporting of Kitty Genovese’s murder.

Eventually Bill’s quest leads him to Winston Moseley, the man convicted of murdering Kitty in 1964. Although Moseley refuses to meet with Bill, he eventually sends a letter declaring that he was only the getaway driver and that Kitty was actually murdered by a powerful member of the mafia. Bill does meet with Moseley’s son, Reverend Steven Moseley, which is awkward but insightful for both men. Reverend Moseley admits that his family believed Bill to be part of the Genovese crime family, which perhaps inspired his father’s unsubstantiated claims in his letter. But he also encourages Bill to find forgiveness, echoing the concerns of the other Genovese siblings who question the lengths Bill is going in the documentary and wonder when he will be satisfied. These lengths culminate in an uncomfortable reenactment of Kitty’s murder, with an actress imitating her struggle and death screams on Austin Street in Kew Gardens while Bill watches. It is an uncomfortable act that, paired with the discoveries disclosed in the documentary, seem to bring Bill some semblance of closure.

Although many will likely peruse The Witness due to the infamy of Kitty Genovese’s death, the documentary serves as a cautionary tale for what can happen when fictionalized versions of the truth are used to sell the story someone wants to tell. It is not only a much-needed call for oversight and ethical journalism, but a tribute to the sister and daughter whose life had been overshadowed and erased by her death.

The Witness is currently streaming on Netflix.