December 20, 1988, Tuesday


LENGTH: 837 words

HEADLINE: It's News, But Is Steinberg's Case Really 'Significant'?

BYLINE: By Mitchell Stephens. Mitchell Stephens is an associate professor of journalism at New York University and the author of "A History of News" (Viking).


FIRST THERE were the horror stories - the tethered boy, the battered girl in a coma. We waited; she died. Then we saw the pictures of bruises, on her, on her mother. Finally, the mother took the stand, talking evenly about a life of unimaginable horror.

Most of us react to stories of violence and perversity - stories like that of the death of Lisa Steinberg - as we might react when passing a bloody accident. We look, but uncomfortably. We are upset and intrigued, but also embarrassed by our own eagerness to pry into someone else's tragedy. Journalists upon occasion retail such stories, and consequently it is in their interest to ease our embarrassment. For hundreds of years they have relied on the same technique for making their audiences more comfortable: draping reports of extreme behavior with significance.

In 1577, for example, a French newsbook regaled readers with the tale of a Naples woman who was executed for killing her husband, poisoning her father (who had refused to let her marry her lover) and then, when her sister and nephews became nuisances, killing them, too. But, of course, this sordid tale was not related as a mere sensation; it served, the newsbook explained, to teach children that they should always "render obedience to their parents." In similar fashion, the energetic and racy coverage of the ax murder of a young woman in a house of prostitution, which helped triple the circulation of the New York Herald in 1836, was said by the paper to have demonstrated "the guilt of a system of society - the wickedness of a state of morals - the atrocity of permitting establishments of such infamy to be erected in every public and fashionable place in our city."

The lessons served with our news today are often more sociological than moral, but they fulfill the same function. How do journalists justify the extensive coverage they are giving to the trial of Joel Steinberg on charges of having murdered the young girl he was raising - a trial filled with allegations of sadomasochism, enslavement, child beatings and drug use among professional people? "The Steinberg case has focused national attention on the problems of child abuse and family violence," proclaimed Newsweek in a cover story, echoing sentiments expressed by many other publications and newscasts.

Such claims to larger significance are not entirely disingenuous. Accounts of sensational news events sometimes have a role to play in alerting the public. Perhaps the unfathomable crimes of that Naples woman helped chasten a few obstreperous children. Perhaps that 1836 ax murder drew needed attention to the prevalence of prostitution in New York. Undoubtedly, we are now more aware of the dangers of child abuse than we were before photos of Lisa Steinberg's injuries were displayed on television and in the papers.

Nevertheless, there are serious dangers in attempting to base an understanding of the world on the extraordinary occurrences in which journalists traffic. The news tends to view a society through its very worst cases. Prosecutors are charging that Lisa Steinberg was not just abused by her father, but killed by him. Steinberg's live-in lover, Hedda Nussbaum, was not just beaten, according to statements made at the trial, she was subjected to a form of brainwashing and repeatedly tortured. One specialist called her injuries the worst of this type he had ever seen.

We could alert ourselves to future Lisa Steinbergs and Hedda Nussbaums and miss the less exaggerated, less macabre, but much more common forms of abuse to which millions of children and women are subject. On the other hand, the terrors this case has unleashed could make every black and blue mark found on a child - and kids do hurt themselves roller-skating - cause for reporting parents to authorities. The outsized attention Lisa Steinberg's fate is receiving could also burden unwed mothers with exaggerated fears of putting their babies up for adoption as Lisa's natural mother did. A careful sociological investigation of these issues would have to move quickly beyond events in the Steinberg-Nussbaum apartment. The news keeps returning to them.

A New York television news executive has said that the Steinberg trial is "compelling television . . . because ever since this story broke, not only New York but the nation has come to view this as the essential battered woman, child abuse case." We may have successfully conspired with our journalists to view this case from that perspective, thereby easing our embarrassment at our interest in it. But this bizarre story hardly qualifies as the "essential" family violence case. That would be more subtle and considerably more representative - too subtle and too representative to make news.

The Steinberg trial is, instead, an essential example of a type of news story humans have always found compelling - filled with glimpses of bruises, brutality, twisted personalities and violated innocence, yet justified by protestations of larger significance.