Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Some thoughts on a less cogent criticism of Making a Murderer

My last post dealt with several reasonable, principled complaints with how the makers of the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer presented the facts in the case of Steven Avery. Unfortunately, not all the shows detractors make such good points. Diana Alvear, for instance, believes “what Netflix missed with ‘Making a Murderer’” is how sad it is that Teresa Halbach was killed. “[T]he most troubling aspect to this entire story,” she writes, “…is that a young woman’s death has been treated as a mere plot device…Teresa deserved more than the mere minutes they gave her on screen.”

I think this is a stupid reason to object to the show. What Teresa Halbach deserved was a long and happy life. More time on camera is a poor consolation for that being taken from her. A commemoration video might have been appropriate for her funeral, or as a thoughtful keepsake to be distributed among her loved ones for occasional remembrance later on. But such a video would not interest the hundreds of millions of Netflix viewers who never met her, however callous Alvear deems that to be.

Allegations of corruption, on the other hand, which challenge people’s deepest assumptions about their most trusted public officials, apparently DO interest Netflix viewers. So does raising the possibility that two innocent people may be languishing in prison, and that we might yet do something about it. People like controversy. There is no controversy about the fact that Teresa Halbach is dead, nor that her death is a tragedy. There are thousands of murders every year and OF COURSE our sympathies go out to the victims and their families. But drumming up the sadness of it all is simply not relevant to the central question being decided in those courtrooms, which was who did it?

What relation do the facts that Halbach loved photography, and won’t ever get married, and was a caring person with a close-knit family truly have with that underlying question? How is it “not standing up” for Teresa to try to find the truth regarding who killed her, even if it comes at the expense of those incidental facts? How is questioning the state’s version of that story something Teresa “deserves better” than? If it turns out her true killer is still out there, isn’t a documentary like this exactly what Teresa would want?

Alvear writes that “what I am trying to do with this essay” is “give Teresa Halbach the justice she deserves.” That’s a pretty ambitious aim, because she’s dead as a doorknob, and nothing will bring her back. No matter what happens to Teresa’s killer, she won’t get justice. How many minutes of screen time she gets to commemorate her life is of literally no consequence to her.

But Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are not dead. If there were injustices done to them, those injustices might yet be rectified.

It is very possible Steven Avery really did kill her . I don’t know beyond a reasonable
doubt either way. But Alvear doesn’t either. Nobody can; and yet, there he sits, in jail for life all the same. That’s the point the documentary made, and apparently it went right over some people’s heads.

PS —  Giving one, short, powerful sentence its own line of text apart from other paragraphs can occasionally highlight that sentence’s implications in a rhetorically effective way. But you can’t replicate that effect an infinite number of times in the same article. Even if I agreed with you, it would have been hard to read this last bit without rolling my eyes at the overdone drama of its presentation:

Note to any aspiring writers out there: hitting the Enter key after every damn line of text just makes your opinion read like an amateur Buzzfeed editorial.

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