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Friday, January 4, 2008

The year of the missing significant other

Posted By on 01.04.08 at 10:44 AM

In a stinging rebuke to media critics, Sun-Times readers have chosen the Stacy Peterson saga as the top story of 2007. In fairness to the voters, they have to work with what the media gives them, and if the S-T (and every other major media outlet in the city) had decided to ride herd on Blago or police torture or the Jasper Johns exhibit or the Bears' quarterback controversy--Kyle Orton's riding around in his Prius at 9 PM! What does it mean?--perhaps the answer would have been different. Plus I have no idea what "top story" entails. If by "top" you mean "given the most attention by the local media," then it's clear that the reading public is just pointing out the obvious.

But there are a couple reasons why there's some value in the story.

(1) I know you know this, so let's say it together--the person who killed you is probably someone you know. I've spent about half my time in Chicago in the Very Dangerous Neighborhood of Hyde Park, straight out of quasi-rural Virginia and the California desert. Save for a brief sojourn in Havana, that was my introduction to city life. And I was inculcated with paranoia from the get-go, like a lot of people just off the cul-de-sac. And sure, there's a fair chance someone will pull a weapon on you and ask for your money. But with rare exceptions, criminals aren't much dumber than the rest of us, and realize that killing you in cold blood for your wallet is much more trouble than it's worth.

But when it comes to profound damage to life and limb, it's more likely to come from the sociopath in your family, the person you're engaged in a criminal conspiracy with or against, or the guy in the left lane. The media gets a lot of heat for making the world seem very dangerous, and deservedly so. But the endless coverage of Stacy Peterson's disappearance, not to mention those of Lisa Stebic, Nailah Franklin, and Anu Solanki, is at least a corrective to the more senseless fear that no matter where you are in Chicago, someone's waiting around the corner with a knife to kill you and take your money.

(2) It is interesting. The Peterson drama is vastly more engaging than a network police procedural, and it's bordering on Prime Suspect-level richness. The May-December romance and the particular pathologies that led to it, the involvement of the clergy, the shitty police work, the tabloidized exhumation, it's a lot of fascinating details that almost add up to a truly significant crime story. I fear it's heading towards a hack-job Lifetime adaptation, but handled with care--cf. The Staircase or Our Boys--someone with talent and compassion could find the resonance in it.

I try not to substitute tradition for logic, and just because people have been fascinated with this kind of story since time immemorial it doesn't mean that it necessarily deserves overwhelming attention. People used to die from scurvy and malaria a lot, too. But sometimes a seamy crime story just needs the right details to make the leap into something of cultural and historical importance (like, say, Leopold and Loeb, and those kinds of details don't always emerge right away. If the Peterson case never coalesces into something of significance, it'll be unfortunate that so many man hours were spent on it, but that's the nature of the business.

(3) OK, OK--I will say that the photographers and cameramen are wasting their time: I could care less that Drew Peterson is out cavorting around on a motorcycle; as long as the guy is innocent in the eyes of the law, he can ride whatever he damn well pleases. I do wish someone would loan him a unicycle or a skateboard or something more entertaining, if we're going to be exposed to his every form of transportation.

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