America's Most Wanted will end its nearly quarter-century run as a regular series this month. The crime-fighting show's creators would like to claim all the criminals they've helped catch as the show's legacy, but Slate's Chris Beam sees things differently. He tells Bob that for him, the show's importance lies in its popularization of the dramatic crime re-enactment.
BOB GARFIELD: America's Most Wanted, the TV show that profiles fugitives and asks the public to help catch them, later this month ends its 23 years as a regular series on FOX. The creators believe their legacy is the roster of more than 1100 fugitives the show has helped put into police custody.
But Slate’s Chris Beam focuses on another achievement: making the dramatic crime reenactment a television fixture.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
You've seen this stuff, grainy or jumpy footage of anonymous actors portraying victims and perpetrators, as a grim narrator describes the action.
NARRATOR: After making sure Ronnie Carpenter had left for work, deputies say Rusty Garrett waited several hours for Linda to come out.
[VOICE ECHOING] Rusty?
BOB GARFIELD: These disturbing portrayals either accurately reflect what took place during the crime or get it all wrong, but if the technique is dubious, Chris Beam says it also has a long history.
CHRIS BEAM: Back during the days of Jack the Ripper in London, the famous illustrated London dailies would have engravings every morning, depicting either the crime or the police looking for the victim or, or discovering the victim. You know, newsreels in the 1930s would have reenactments, as we imagine them today.
So it is a technique that’s been around for a long time. They want to pull readers in and, more than anything, make them feel like they're there. They're seeing the killer, they're seeing the gun go off. And it’s funny – when you see a reenactment you know it’s a reenactment, but nonetheless it makes the event itself feel more real.
And for America's Most Wanted, especially, that’s important because their goal is to track down these killers, these criminals, and so to make the audience feel like they're invested in the crime is especially important.
BOB GARFIELD: The reenactment has become such a staple of cable TV true crime stuff that it’s just everywhere, but what I was really stunned by in reading your piece was that this stuff shows up not only in crime entertainment, but actually in courts.
CHRIS BEAM: Most recently there’s been a trend towards digital reenactments, so lawyers either for the defense or for the prosecution will commission a 3-D animation of what they think happened. And this is controversial because some lawyers have argued that it biases the jury. Seeing something depicted so realistically in a 3-D animation is more likely to make them believe whoever commissioned the, the animation.
So sometimes you'll have a defense and a prosecution with dueling animations of each side’s version of events.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s glitzy 3-D reenactments. In some places, in court they actually make the defendant walk through a live reenactment of the crime, or at least the prosecution’s version of the crime.
CHRIS BEAM: Yeah, this still happens to this day in South Korea. If you’re accused of a crime, the police will sometimes force you to reenact the alleged crime. They'll invite the media; they'll let the public watch as you go through step-by-step what you’re accused of doing, anything from robbery to murder or rape.
The justification is that this will help the police verify your confession, if you confess. But there’s also an element of public shaming. It’s part of your punishment.
BOB GARFIELD: Errol Morris, in his famous documentary, The Thin Blue Line, actually presented multiple reenactments of the same crime. Tell me about that.
CHRIS BEAM: The case involved the murder of a Texas policeman in the 1980s, I believe, and different people had different versions of the story. And so, the way Errol Morris handled that was that he reenacted each version of the story according to people’s version of events.
What’s so brilliant about it is that it undermines the notion that there is one definitive version of the crime. You know, you’re constantly reminding yourself that what you’re seeing is not to be trusted. And most cop shows, you know, most programs like America's Most Wanted, don't do that. They want you to be immersed. They don't want you to be critical of what you’re seeing.
BOB GARFIELD: Should we feel queasy about buying into this trope? Are you really confident that the public comes away not assuming that they have just witnessed reality?
CHRIS BEAM: You know, Errol Morris has written that he was once asked how he managed to be there at the scene of the crime in Dallas in the 1980s, and he just looked at the guy blankly. He’s like, you don't realize that this is a reenactment? [LAUGHS] So there’s always going to be an audience that doesn't distinguish there.
But I think we shouldn't be troubled, because I don't think that reenactments, as done on America's Most Wanted, are really, in the end, different from etchings in the 19th century, from pamphlets in the 17th century. You know, this is how we tell stories. We select certain facts. We pick a version of events. And they're not making this up out of whole cloth. They're basing these reenactments on police reports. I think that as long as they're clear about what the audience is watching, I think it’s a perfectly fine practice.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Chris. Well, thank you very much.
CHRIS BEAM: Great to be here. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: You can find Chris Beam’s story, “Repeat Offenders,” at Slate.com.