jeudi 1 septembre 2011

Nina Burleigh: view from a broad who doesn't seem to like broads or being abroad


In Burleigh’s shoddy book on the murder of Meredith Kercher, she gets the victim’s birthday wrong. But that’s not all she gets wrong. From what I can tell, Burleigh simply skips over much of the key evidence in favor of gossiping about and criticizing other journalists who have covered the case. She is particularly hard on female journalists, which is odd given that she prides herself on being a modern feminist. I find it very telling, for example, that she indicates what Barbie Nadeau and Andrea Vogt's husbands do for a living (one works for the UN and one is a university professor), but does not see fit to provide us with any information on what the wives of any of the male journalists do. The implication is clear: these two “females” took up writing as a sort of hobby after trailing behind their menfolk to Europe. Worse, Burleigh notes that though they are both American born, they are more European in "style" and "craft" which, aside from being absolute nonsense, remains unsubstantiated by any analysis whatsoever. It amounts to saying “they’re sooooo European”. What does that mean? Well, once you know that Burleigh is a relentless and mindless cheerleader for the superiority of all things American, it becomes clear that what she means is that they are inferior journalists because all things European are inferior to all things American. Burleigh also claims that what she calls Nadeau's “cosmopolitan speech affect” is an attempt to hide her Middle American roots (in Burleigh’s words, her “rural South Dakota accent”). She says the "statuesque redhead" Vogt looks like she could play the role of Brenda Starr. In other words, Burleigh is trying to suggest that these two are imposters, merely playing at journalism by dressing up like a cartoon journalist or putting on airs and trying to talk like a big city slicker instead of a sharecropper. In fact, Vogt has been a working reporter for fifteen years, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in journalism, is trilingual and has published in English, German and Italian. I don't know much about Nadeau’s academic training, but she currently writes on a variety of topics for both Newsweek and the Daily Beast. And the excellent Christopher Dickey thinks quite highly of her.

Meanwhile, back to Burleigh and her seemingly endless supply of sour grapes. At one point in her book, she mentions an Italian female reporter, but only to comment on her boots! One starts to wonder what she has against women, especially her professional peers.

Her male peers do not get a free pass, either, at least those who work in that dreadful country Italy where, according to Burleigh, freedom of speech does not exist. She criticizes foreign journalists based in Italy, basically calling them a bunch of cowards, so fearful of the Mafia that they confine themselves to writing about la dolce vita -- food, wine and bunga bunga. This is absolute bollocks, of course. John Follain, who has covered the case for the Times, has written two books about Italy in the fifteen or so years he has lived there: one is about the Mafia, while the other takes on the Vatican. Vogt investigated the White Supremacy movement in Idaho and has written an excellent book about it, not without exposing herself to danger. As for Nadeau, she has covered Italy’s garbage crisis, and in one gritty, unforgettable article for Newsweek describes walking through some of the most dangerous Mafia neighborhoods. All three have been viciously attacked by Knox supporters. Meanwhile, Nina Burleigh is happy to fixate on what her fellow journalists are wearing and eating and drinking. Come to think of it, when she was a correspondent in France, she was obsessed with complaining about and criticizing French women, probably for not instantly recognizing her innate superiority.

It is too bad Burleigh opted to focus on this kind of crap instead of actually discussing much of the real evidence against Knox and Sollecito. Frankly, hers is the most disappointing and surely the nastiest book on the tragic murder of Meredith Kercher that has been published to date. After reading what Burleigh wrote about Nadeau and Vogt, I was left wondering why she has such an ax to grind with them. Is it because they are at least a decade younger than she is? Is it because they live in Europe and she doesn't? Is it because they are fluent in foreign languages and she isn’t? I really don't know, but the book sure has a bitter stench to it.

The good news is I didn't even have to buy it. In fact, I don't want to be seen reading it in public. Thanks to Google books, I was able to find many of the offending passages on line. In addition, I can discreetly skim at my local bookseller’s. All in all, I have found it a pretty dull exercise. The book is glib, superficial and gossipy. One walks away feeling dirty and sad, wondering where one would be placed within Burleigh's social and class hierarchy. Hopefully at least a hair above middle class.

I almost forgot to mention the pièce de résistance in Burleigh’s sliming of the two female journalists who did not roll over for the Knox family PR supertanker. Burleigh also asserts that these two small-town American imposters, after acquiring their polished "style" and "craft" by living in Europe, were "appalled" by the way AK and her family "flouted" Italian mores, implying that this snobbery tainted their reporting. While I recall both journalists providing good analysis of how and why some of the antics of AK and her family were not good strategy under the circumstances – for example, AK’s decision to turn up in court one day wearing an over-sized “all you need is love” t-shirt or her sister Deanna’s choice of courtroom attire on July 4 (red-white-and-blue hotpants outfit) – I have never read anything suggesting they personally disapproved of or were appalled by the American and her family. Since this snide and non-sourced aside appears on the same page as Burleigh’s claim that Nadeau tried to hide her "rural" accent with a "cosmopolitan speech affect", it is fair to say that Burleigh’s real goal is to discredit them as objective reporters. It is almost as if she - Burleigh - were taking dictation from Doug Preston! And if Burleigh finds this to be a sexist remark, then I suggest she take a long, hard look in the mirror.

In the same section of the book, Burleigh describes John Kercher as a tabloid reporter and notes that neither he nor his family even "attempted" to learn Italian, relying instead on their lawyer to tell them what was going on.

Yes, you read that right: Burleigh thinks that the grieving Kercher family should have set aside their grief and contacted Berlitz straight away! And she implies that it is a mistake to rely on their legal counsel for information or advice. (At least Italy gives the victim’s family a legal voice.) I guess Burleigh would prefer that the Kercher family turn to people like Amanda’s stepfather Chris Mellas, or the various profiteers riding the PR supertanker: David Marriott and Doug Preston to name just two. This is apparently what Burleigh did.

It is clear from what I have read that Burleigh is not concerned with the victim Meredith Kercher or her family. She seems more interested in passing judgement on those she considers inferior in station to herself (just about everyone),complaining about life in Italy and taking pot shots at other journalists. My guess is that deep down she likes Italy about as much as she liked France, which is to say not much, maybe not at all. Burleigh is that quintessential Ugly American. I saw early signs of it in her reporting on this case for Time. Incidentally, she did not begin until June of 2009, when the trial was well under way and almost two years after the murder itself. I had never heard of Burleigh, so I decided to have a look at her earlier work, especially that on life in France. I truly was flabbergasted by her utter inability to cope in a strange land. She took an instant dislike to the French in general and was unable to understand the culture, in part because she was unable or unwilling to learn the language. I find it ironic – and appalling – that she faults the Kerchers, of all people, for not learning the language of the country where their daughter/sister was murdered when she herself could or would not learn the language of the country she was residing in under happy circumstances.

Is it class or gender or nationality that Burleigh most has a problem with?

Hard to say, since she seems to have a sense of superiority that encompasses all three. Speaking of disapproval, Burleigh treats the Knox women and Meredith's British friends in the same haughty, catty manner as she treats her professional peers. In fact, she refers to the Knox clan collectively as "a hair on the low side of middle class". I guess from the throne upon which she has placed herself, Burleigh is able to make these fine distinctions and, in addition, finds it necessary. And how about this fine value judgement on page 33? "Amanda was the sole member of the gaggle of menstruating, jealous, bitchy, angry, loving, needy females around Curt who could keep her emotions in check". I'm not making this up; Burleigh actually wrote those words. One pictures hapless Curt surrounded by the seven dwarves (Jealous, Bitchy, Angry, Loving, Needy, Bloody and Amanda). While I believe that Amanda Knox was rightly convicted for her role in Meredith Kercher's death, and though I have been critical of her family's decision to hire a PR firm that has attempted to manipulate public opinion, I certainly think they are entitled to a little more respect and empathy than this. Speaking of entitled, that is how Burleigh herself comes off throughout this book.

Moving on to Meredith's British friends, Burleigh dismisses them en masse with this tightly packed bundle of sexism and stereotyping: "tweedy peaches-and-cream complected sylphs who moved as a pack". How Burleigh would even know how they moved is beyond me, since she was not covering the case in the days or even months that followed this brutal murder. Perhaps, if they did stick together, it was for mutual comfort. That's what the little people do, Nina.

Italian women are not spared either. In addition to her fixation on a local reporter's boots (perhaps because she could not read her work?), Burleigh describes Police Chief Monica Napoleoni's style as "part dominatrix, part donatella Versace with a badge" and another Italian policewoman as a "thick-bodied woman". Nina's motto: When in Rome and unable to follow what's going on, focus instead on making disparaging comments about the way other women look.

Burleigh pretentiously dedicates her book to the victims of sexual violence, an odd choice since she does little more here than perpetuate the sexist and sexual stereotypes that underlie this phenomenon. I am all for supporting the victims of sexual violence and will do so by not buying Burleigh's nasty piece of work, which adds nothing to our knowledge of the case anyway.

Anyone who really wants to read a good book on the murder of Meredith Kercher should try Darkness Descending and/or Angel Face, both out for some time now. In addition to these works, John Follain, who has lived in Italy since the mid-90’s and covered the case from the outset, has a book coming out soon. I seriously doubt he will be focusing on women's boots.