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LEGACY OF A KIDNAPPING
LEGACY OF A KIDNAPPING Bookmark and Share

56 minutes, 2000
Producer: Libby Handros, Co-Producers: Michael Teodoru and John Kirby
ABOUT THE FILM
DISCONTINUED

Legacy of a Kidnapping traces how today’s tabloid journalism evolved from one of the landmark events of American mass communications: the Lindbergh kidnapping case. Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s and one of the most incisive and acerbic of current media critics, discovers in this case the origin of many of the afflictions besetting present-day journalism : the media events, infotainment, celebrity anchors, ‘soft news’, papparazzi round-the-clock news and the media ‘feeding frenzy.’ He clinches his argument by inter-weaving a detailed reconstruction of media coverage of the Lindbergh case with devastating, sometimes hilarious clips from the ‘mega-stories’ of our own time - the O.J. Simpson trial, Princess Diana’s death and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Charles Lindbergh, albeit reluctantly, was at once one of the Tabloid Age’s first heroes and victims. When in 1927 this 25-year-old American innocently emerged out of the clouds from his solo Trans-Atlantic flight, the press found a ready-made symbol for an ascendant world power emerging from the disillusionment and dissoluteness of the post World War I ‘lost generation.’

The press therefore five years later easily transformed the kidnapping and murder of his infant son into a monumental moral drama of good and evil set against the background of a Depression-traumatized America. Lapham demonstrates how publisher William Randolph Hearst, the father of ‘yellow journalism,’ stage-managed the case from the start. Hearst was unapologetic about his journalistic ethics. ‘The public,’ he proclaimed, ‘wants entertainment not information.’ He spear-headed the press in a nationwide hunt for the Lindbergh kidnapper; even Al Capone put up a $10,000 reward from his jail cell. Extra editions, made possible by new printing technology and prefiguring our own 24-hour news, breathlessly announced each meaningless new detail of the case. As a side-effect of the case, which carried on from 1932 through 1935, the number of tabloids tripled from 12 to 35.

When a suspect, Bruno Hauptman, conveniently a German national, was finally found, Hearst actually hired his lawyer, an incompetent but comic alcoholic who received gifts of call girls and champagne throughout the trial from the press baron. Journalists and celebrities from around the world swarmed to this the first of many ‘trials of the century,’ ridiculed by curmudgeon and columnist H.L. Mencken as ‘the greatest event since the Resurrection.’ Cutting back and forth, Lapham shows how Hearst’s troika of celebrity journalists, Damon Runyan, Adela Rogers St. James and Walter Winchell, officiated over this national purification ritual with the same unctuous sanctimony as Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer and Dan Rather.

Lapham does not take the easy way out by simply ‘blaming the media.’ Instead, he notes a national preference for comforting moral fables over complex political realities, which increasingly turns public discourse into a sterile clash of symbols, incapable of change, growth or compromise. If the tabloid press during the Lindbergh case kidnapped American public discourse, it wasn’t because the American public wasn’t watching.
CRITICAL COMMENT
"Lewis Lapham’s surgical essay on journalism then and now is a deliciously wicked assault on current ethics and values. It is particularly apt as the television networks wallow in the muck of so-called ’reality programming’ created reality, of course, [of which] Mr. Hearst would have been proud."
Morely Safer, 60 Minutes/CBS
"A powerful, disturbing and gutsy new documentary tracing the culture of celebrity back to the media vultures that circled the decomposed remains of the kidnapped Lindbergh baby."
New York Daily News
"As Lewis Lapham makes clear in this bitter and incisive documentary, the current plague of 'tabloid news' is not an outbreak of some new disease. Rupert Murdoch, Viacom, Time Warner are only more (much more) of what the media machine has been dispensing for a good long time."
Mark Crispen Miller, New York University
"This irreverant video essay shows that today's tabloid journalism is not an aberation of contemporary bad taste but a time-honored tradition of a press never too principled to pander for profit."
Neil Postman, New York University
"In this new documentary, Lewis Lapham tells us why certain aspects of our journalism stink and have stunk for a long time. We feel cleansed, not soiled, by facing up to the fact of how our most ruthless media values work with our appetites."
Stanley Crouch

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