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Nation, media fascinated by case

Pam Regensberg
Daily Times-Call

BOULDER -- While the death of one 6-year-old beauty queen has captured the nation's attention, thousands of other children are murdered in the U.S. every year.

Their deaths go virtually unnoticed, say some observers.

One University of Colorado professor called the media frenzy surrounding the slaying of JonBenet Ramsey a disservice.

``It's like maggots going after a piece of meat, devouring any little bit,'' said Polly McLean, a CU journalism and mass communication professor.

The Ramseys church visit on Sunday was a nonevent, McLean said.

She said society would be better served if reporters gave ``such in-depth attention to other issues that are plaguing our society with such intensity, fervor and stick-to-it-ness.''

When JonBenet's lifeless body was found in the basement of her parents' lavish Boulder home on Dec. 26, reporters from Boulder County and the Denver-metro area were on top of the tragic story.

As the tale unfolded, however, and reporters learned that JonBenet was the 1995 Little Miss Colorado and that her parents, John and Patricia ``Patsy'' Ramsey , were a prominent Boulder couple, more reporters flocked to Boulder.

Now, two weeks after Patsy Ramsey found a ransom note on a back staircase demanding $118,000 for the safe return of her daughter, journalists from throughout the country have camped out in Boulder.

Reporters with Cable News Network, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, 48 Hours, 60 Minutes, Dateline, 20//20, Hard Copy, Inside Edition, the National Inquirer, as well as print and radio journalists from throughout the U.S. are in the city trying to scoop other media outlets.

Police spokeswoman Leslie Aaholm said she can't remember the city ever being under this amount of scrutiny for this long. She estimates that between 100 and 125 reporters are working on the story.

For now, the vast majority of media organizations are acting as a clearinghouse of information obtained from ``sources close to the investigation.''

At Tuesday's news conference, at least 20 television cameras cluttered the Boulder City Council chambers. And some television crews with their large satellite vans are still parked outside the Ramseys ' home, in front of the Boulder police station and at the municipal building. Any morsel of new information becomes tomorrow's headlines.

But why have the national media grabbed onto this story when children are murdered every day?

For the same reason people watched the O.J. Simpson murder trial, McLean said. Those proceedings provided great fodder for amateur sleuths and couch detectives.

``It has all the earmarks of a great mystery novel,'' she pointed out. ``It has sex, glamour and wealth.''

McLean said if the Ramseys were people of average means, reporters probably would not care as much. If/j

JonBenet or Patsy Ramsey , the 1977 Miss West Virginia, were not beauty queens, the media would not be dissecting the story as they are. And if the family were black, Hispanic or another ethnic minority, the media would have left this story by now and looked for something more scandalous.

``Kids are murdered every day in poor, non-glamorous situations,'' McLean said, adding that the Ramseys have taken on a royalty-like distinction.

According to the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Reports, 2,660 children were murdered in 1994. And in 90 percent of the homicide cases involving children between 1976 and 1994, the child was killed by a family member, the FBI reported.

Nevertheless, McLean said the fact that Boulder police are releasing few details about the case has helped keep JonBenet's murder in the headlines. McLean, who has never worked as a reporter, said the press should leave the police alone to do its job.

Working journalists agree with McLean about why the media have clung to the story.

``The unusualness of the case'' has intrigued people, said Associated Press Denver Bureau Chief Joe McGowan.

It was McGowan's office that helped spread the story throughout the nation. The AP acts as a clearinghouse and obtains stories from other newspapers, radio and television reports, as well as from in-house reporters.

McGowan said all the elements were present to capture the nation's attention. The body was inside the home. There were no signs of forced entry. The Boulder police appeared to have botched the investigation in the early stages. Investigators questioned family and friends in Georgia and Michigan.

Judges in Michigan and in Colorado sealed police documents. The family hired two leading defense attorneys and a ``spin control'' expert. The ransom note appears to have come from a tablet of paper inside the home. And the family has yet to speak to police, but sat down for an interview with a CNN reporter.

``She looked like a Barbie doll, almost unreal,'' McGowan said of the pageant videotapes that have been widely circulated. ``It's heart-gripping. It took off when they gave that interview with CNN.''

In addition, the story seems to become more bizarre as the investigation wears on into the third week.