I just finished watching the last episode of HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, only to find out that Durst was arrested yesterday in connection with the 2000 murder of Susan Berman. Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, with the help of viral media, may have finally done what our nation’s government(s) have been unable to do for the past 25 years: hold Robert Durst accountable for three potential murders.
The similarities between this incident and the Bill Cosby and Ray Rice fiascos this past year are clear. In each case, our criminal justice system failed to prosecute the perpetrators of particularly obvious crimes; new evidence was brought to light by journalists, followed by widespread condemnation of the alleged perpetrators by Twitter and Facebook users, as well as the blogosphere and later the mainstream media. In the cases of Bill Cosby and Ray Rice, guilty verdicts have still not been reached by our nation’s official government. Both Cosby and Rice, nevertheless, lost either their jobs or major revenue streams, and perhaps more importantly, their respect in the public eye.
In The Crowd in the Iranian Revolution, Ervand Abrahamian writes about how post-1960’s academic research into the motives and actions of mass movements combatted the prevailing view of crowds as “irrational, fickle, swinish, and bloodthirsty,” revealing instead the rational, political nature of the crowd. Unfortunately, academics have yet to make similar discoveries about the new media revolution. Most articles today lament the threat that new media poses to our current judicial system, even though it has proven time and again to be biased toward more powerful classes, races, genders, etc. The term “viral media” itself implies an irrational dissemination of ideas. Even the defenders of new media rarely go so far as to suggest that 21st century digital-mob-justice is not only more fair and less violent, but perhaps more well thought out than the decisions made by our current judicial system. I suspect that academic research into new media will one day reveal viral media campaigns to be as rational and politically pertinent as the Iranian crowds in 1978-9 that torched banks and police stations and chanted “Death to the Shah,” but first made sure there were no people in the buildings they were to burn, then made sure the flames would not spread to the nearby Jewish carpet shops, and even kept their voices down as they marched past the hospital.
The jinx that doomed Durst was not contemporary forensic analysis, his signature handwriting, or even his confession of dismemberment. What jinxed Durst was the fact that his crimes are now being reexamined using more civilized, intelligent, and democratic methods.