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What Haunts a 'True Crime' Author : Media: A journalist's book becomes TV's tale; might that inspire another killing?

August 22, 1993|SUE HORTON | Sue Horton is an assistant professor of journalism at USC

A week or so ago, a nightmare came true for me.

Five years ago, NBC aired a miniseries based on my journalistic writings about a group of young Los Angeles men who called themselves the Billionaire Boys Club. Soon after the program ran, I had a dream. In it, a young man came up to me and said, "Well, I did it." I asked what he had done. He told me he had locked his father in a trunk and killed him, just as some of the BBC members had done to the father of one of them. I was terribly upset that he had taken the wrong message from the miniseries. He apologized, and his father was suddenly alive again.

It didn't work that way in real life.

A psychologist who treated Lyle and Eric Menendez has testified that they claimed to have gotten the idea for killing their parents from watching "The Billionaire Boys Club" on TV.

I don't believe that a television program can turn a well-adjusted, compassionate person into a sociopath. But anyone who has seen young children trying out karate moves after watching "Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles" understands the impact that television can have on behavior. So it's not impossible that if the Menendez brothers did murder their parents, their decision to do so was in some way shaped by what they saw in "The Billionaire Boys Club."

Journalists who write about crime do so in an attempt to understand and explain this increasingly prevalent aspect of society. But coming to a clear understanding of criminality is not simple. In trying to unravel the story of the BBC, which included at least two murders as well as numerous financial crimes, I interviewed more than 100 people. I sat in on two criminal trials and reviewed more than 20,000 pages of documents. The book that resulted from my work presented, I hope, a detailed and accurate examination of a set of crimes and the particular culture that produced them.

I worry that something important is lost when journalistic work is translated into drama. The primary purpose of journalism is to inform; the primary purpose of dramatic television is to entertain. The producers, writer and director of "The Billionaire Boys Club" took great pains to be accurate, and they handled the material as thoughtfully as is possible. But when a popular young actor like Judd Nelson plays the role of the BBC's leader, the story takes on an aura of glamor that overshadows the horror of the crime.

People worry about the graphic quality of television violence, but it is far less graphic than violence in real life. In the miniseries, we watched as members of the BBC locked the father of another member in a trunk. We watched their horror when they discovered he was dead. What we didn't experience was the overpowering smell of urine and feces, the feel of cold, lifeless skin, the horror of trying to maneuver a dead, stiffening body out a door, into a truck and then over a cliff. On television, it all happened quickly; in reality, it was an hours-long ordeal.

I'm not sure what the solution is. Television has a ravenous appetite for "true-life" stories, even if it ends up portraying them in a way that doesn't reflect true life. And the reason programmers want these stories is that audiences love them. Millions of people have seen "The Billionaire Boys Club," as well as the dozens of other "true crime" dramas that air each year. I worry that these kinds of stories now seem commonplace, a part of the general experience of being American, instead of truly grotesque aberrations.

A television movie about the Menendez brothers is already in development. I can't help but wonder what additional violence it will spawn.

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