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Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and Raymond Santana on ‘Central Park Five,’ Tabloid Journalism, And Rape Prosecutions

By Alyssa Rosenberg  

"Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and Raymond Santana on ‘Central Park Five,’ Tabloid Journalism, And Rape Prosecutions"


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At 9PM tonight, PBS will air Central Park Five, co-directed by Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah Burns. An adaptation of Sarah Burns’ book The Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes, Central Park Five is a searing examination of the 1989 sexual assault on Trisha Meili, a crime for which five young men, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam were convicted after coercive interrogations and wrongfully imprisoned. Though their convictions were vacated in 2002 after Matias Reyes confessed to the attack on Meili, a civil suit filed by a number of the men in 2003 is still pending, the district attorney in the case, Elizabeth Lederer, still works for the city of New York, and the city attempted to subpoena outtakes and additional footage from the Burns’ film, an effort that was just recently blocked by a judge.

I spoke at length with Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and Raymond Santana, one of the Central Park Five, in Pasadena in January. We discussed the role of the media in the case, the impact of courtroom sketches, and why Lederer, who the Burns’ believe had grave doubts about the prosecution, has never spoken about her involvement in the case. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I think the movie is tremendous, and it’s wonderful to have all of you here. I wanted to start out by asking, one of the things that really struck me about the documentary that I’m not sure is completely explicit, but that really came across to me, was that New York in this time was a place that was not really safe for women or for young men of color, and this was a case that ended up pitting these two populations that were being poorly served against each other. I wasn’t sure if that was something you wanted to pull out explicitly or that was more interesting to have as an implicit thread.

Ken Burns: We took a lot, we made a lot of narrative decisions that were at least superficially different than other movies that we’d made, so in fact we were trusting that a lot of things would have to remain implicit and not explicit. Explicit could be explicated by narrative. And in this case what we felt would just contain as much of the story as possible, filled with all of its excruciating paradoxes and contradictions. Not the least of it is that. I think that’s a really good point, that the most vulnerable are in some ways the symbolic antagonists in this invented drama.

Sarah Burns: I think Craig Steven Wilder does a good job of giving you at least some sense of that, of the vulnerability of minority teenaged boys especially, as the people who were most likely to be victims of the crime that people were seeing and were concerned about. And that was something that was forgotten. That’s sort of an important thing to understand, both that that was happening, and the way the media was covering not only this case but the time in general was such that we were seeing those people who were most likely to be victims as the source of our problems and not the victims of them.

I was really struck by one of the journalists who talked about reporting harassment that she’d experience on the subway. It almost seemed like there were people who had not spoken up about smaller events in their own lives and felt an obligation to come down hard in this case. I don’t know if that was a sense of guilt…But it seemed to be a real focal point for other lack of safety that people were feeling.

Ken Burns: This was a complicated narrative of kind of mass hysteria. That is to say, how is it that a general population buys into a story that’s not true? And part of that has to do with a sense of frustration and desperation in terms of the social situations. It’s why you want a dictator to come in and make the trains run on time. So, too, we embraced anything that looked like it could find a very symbolic closure to all of these very complicated and disparate things. That never happens. But unfortunately there were these five human beings and their families that were made the victims of an already horrific crime, added on to Trish Meili’s suffering, because people were willing to accept this story. Because it in retrospect is so improbable. And yet it fed into everybody’s worst fears. And I think this is what happened. That the failures, not just among the initial police investigators and prosecutors, but among the media buying it wholesale, lead to this tragedy to go on for 13 years, and to continue for ten more, as justice is delayed in the case of the Five’s civil suit against the city.

One thing I was struck by was Craig Steven Wilder talking about a moment of, if you’re a person of color in New York, bracing yourself to wait for the identity of a victim. And I thought the way you teased out the complicated reaction from both white publications and publications that were based in the black community raised an interesting question for me. Do you think there was an element of racial self-policing in this case, a desire by some people in African-American and Latino communities to go along with the prosecution out of a sense that they needed to prove that they were good New Yorkers?

Raymond Santana: The media portrayed us so bad in the beginning that people automatically assumed that we was guilty. And in the process, they turned away from us. Which became “That’s them, that’s not us.” They disassociated themselves with us. In my instance, in my case, I came from a big family, and a lot of them did that. So I felt that on a deep impact. Not just from outside society, but in my own family, that happened, where people disassociated from us because they thought we were guilty because of everything they read early on. And this wasn’t something where they just read one article. There were numerous articles that came out back to back to back, so they were being force-fed this false information.

Ken Burns: It’s a complicated dynamic. The Reverend Calvin Butts in the film talks about African-Americans feeling themselves fearful of their own teenagers, and that they had been raped, and they had been robbed, and they had had their purses snatched. So there was a willingness on the part of everybody to go along. But there’s also the sense of the polarization that took place in a city that was always extremely polarized. And I think as the African-American media particularly moved along it found itself entrenched in certain viewpoints that were just necessarily opposite the other. They could agree on the guilt, which was a classic mistake. But they could then find other reasons for it, other deeper, societal reasons of poverty, and joblessness, and crime with black on black and black on brown crime within the community as not justifying it, but helping to understand it.

Sarah Burns: I think it’s true. You see both sides, as you said, reacting as Raymond said “That’s not us,” and wanting to separate from them and saying “No, no, we’re not part of this thing that you’re afraid of.” And then also this reaction that is the sort of knee-jerk that you were talking about where you get coverage in some of the black-run weekly papers that is sometimes acknowledging guilt but then blaming society, and in other cases saying “No, they didn’t do it,” but using an explanation that is completely irrational for that. So saying “They’re being railroaded,” but it was her boyfriend, or coming up with these sort of theories about it that were also not grounded in fact. So the thing that was missing was anyone getting it right. You have it sort of from all sides. And of course the loudest and most common viewpoint is what you’re seeing in the mainstream daily papers. But even though you get these different versions of that and almost reactions to it, no one is actually getting the story right.

Ken Burns: People say it’s a Rashomon. No it’s not. Rashomon implies that you have a diversity of points of view, and you see the rape, as Rashomon is about, from this point of view, and I see it from this, and you see it from this, and you see it from this, and you see it from that, and that’s how you assemble the idea of human frailty. When in fact, everyone bought, hook, line, and sinker, and remember, it’s not just the newspapers, it’s the television, local television, which was bleeding and leading as loudly as you could possibly do it, that was as influential as anything in helping to shape the opinions on the case.

I thought the media ethics question on whether to name the victim in retaliation for you guys being named in the press was a really interesting one.

Ken Burns: That’s one of the corollaries to what we were talking about, exactly that, that the black newspapers would then, as I was saying, sort of retreat to classic postures. Which is, “If you’ve done it to us,” meaning “If you’ve named our children,” which no one ever does in these cases, “If you’ve named our children, then we’re going to name her.” So, and then what you get is the classic horrific tit for tat that keeps no possibility for reconciliation open.

One thing I was struck by in the documentary was the invisibility of the victim, because she’s first in the hospital and then in a rehab center. There’s almost, if sexual assault prosecutions are supposed to be about getting justice for victims, she’s really sort of removed from this case, and I wonder if New York sort of stepped up as a collective victim in the case and rendered her invisible.

Sarah Burns: Yeah, I think it’s more that she, in being anonymous—though the fact is, we knew almost everything about her but her name. We knew where she worked. We knew where she lived. We knew what she looked like and where she came from and quite a lot of detail about her life, actually. By withholding her name and sort of removing her from that situation, she’s in the hospital, I think what it allowed for was the ability to kind of put her on a pedestal as this idealized victim, and in that sense, to represent all victims, anyone who’s been a victim of crime, anyone who’s been fearful of crime. And so there have been, there were always those voices saying “Why was she running in the park that night? That’s a bad idea.” But relative to the way that people often treat rape victims in this blame the victim thing, there was very little of that. And mostly she was put on this pedestal as being a perfect victim in that way.

Ken Burns: And that had a lot to do with race. Because she is a young, petite, blonde, white woman. And she then immediately finds herself on a pedestal that is not just of the moment, but historic. That is to say that this is the thing that has come down through American history as one of the horrific, destabilizing things that comes out of slavery, which is you’ve imprisoned these people for so long that then you have to make them the bad guys in these hypersexualized contexts. And so she gets protected. And what you do then is demonize and turn the children that you are blaming into monsters. And that is classic Jim Crow, classic slavery time. This the modus operandi. She gets trotted down the aisle of the courtroom, who has absolutely nothing to add to it, except for the highly symbolic value of the fact that here are these caged beasts responsible for this frail human being’s situation. The fact that it turns out to be not true is 23 years later, it’s still an uphill slog.

I thought the courtroom sketches in the movie were very striking.

Ken Burns: Yeah.

I wondered what it was like to see yourself in those sketches. That seemed to be a case where those sketches increased the racial tenor of the case. They’re cartoons, they’re caricatures, that’s necessarily what they are, but it must have been strange to see yourself in those images.

Raymond Santana: Yeah, especially when you look at some of those images back then that came out in the paper, and you see you had this look, this horrific look, like fangs and you had these pointy edges, and as a young kid, it was like “Wow, this is how I’m being portrayed.” So you see, you’re given no chance. Yusuf says it all the time, how they was calling us brutes. And he looked at a lot of those sketches, because he happened to be on bail, and I wasn’t, so I didn’t see the paper, but he saw it constantly, and it was frightening. Here I am, I’m a 14-year-old kid, and you’re portraying me as a monster. How can I be a monster when I’m only 14? And I only weighed about 100 pounds. That’s when you really start to look and say I’m fighting a losing battle.

Ken Burns: What’s so interesting is the woman who did the majority of the courtoom sketches herself became so obsessed with the case, and just produced volumes of them and developed a kind of, is sympathy the right word, or a real deep suspicion of what was being handed down.

Sarah Burns: I think so. I think her natural position was to be skeptical in a way that most people weren’t. But she spent a lot of time in courtrooms, and I think she did feel, you can tell that she didn’t like Elizabeth Lederer, because she’s depicted as being very pinched. And I think that reflects her perspective on that, too. But I think that she, too, was influenced by this larger conversation about the animal nature of these kids, and that finds its way in there even though she’s kind of sympathetic to them, and felt for their youth and that kind of thing. At least that’s how she talks about it now. But Yusuf tells a story about another woman who was also a courtroom artist who’s published a book, not Christine Cornell, whose work is in our film, Marilyn Sheppard. Someone else who actually apologized at some point for her depictions. Maybe the only apology.

Raymond Santana: Probably. Might be the only one.

I wanted to ask about Elizabeth Lederer, because she seemed like an interesting blank space in the movie. There’s this idealized idea that if we get women involved in sexual assault prosecutions that there will be more sympathy for victims and there will be less slut-shaming, there will be less of a tendency to go down wrong paths. But this was a case where she clearly went down a wrong path. She was the one interrogating you. I was curious about what she’s doing now.

Ken Burns: She still works at the District Attorney’s Office. She, despite repeated attempts, refused to participate in the film. You know, the film asks a couple of really basic questions. The first one is “What happened?” Because this is such a convoluted thing. And the second is “Who were these guys?” Because they spent so long denied a kind of existence and put into that cartoon beast category, as if you’d gone to the zoo to draw the lesser primates. We wished to ask more important questions. I think the film does a really good job of revealing the essential humanity of five human beings who up to this point had had this humanity denied.

I remember that moment of you talking about listening to MTV Raps.

Ken Burns: So what happens is there’s an element of film, which is why we’re all drawn to film, that has that kind of sense that you’re looking at, no matter what the filmmakers are doing, you’re looking at something that has a kind of polygraphic aspect to it. That applies, too, to the prosecutors. You can see in Elizabeth Lederer’s face, the whole case, that the truth has left on a train going that way, and she and her colleagues are going the other way, and she knows it. You can feel it, after the first trial, which should be an amazing triumph for her, this is the crime of the century, so-called by her ultimate boss, the Mayor of New York, she looks miserable. Looks miserable. She looks miserable at a lot of the situations. And I think she was miserable. I think, this is just my own opinion as a human being, she is miserable. Because five human beings were sacrificed in the case of not what you were talking about, how to protect the victim and all of that, but for the sake of mistakes, bureaucracies, institutions, all of those things for which these five were expendable. And I think she has paid a price in her conscience for that. I’m not sure Linda Fairstein has. But I think that she wears the doubt so obviously that I think it’s a crack in the facade of their intransigence. The 23 years of intransigence. Because remember the city is still pushing back against any acknowledgement.

Sarah Burns: She’s the person I’d most like to know what was really going on inside her head, because I do, I wonder about what kinds of doubts she may have had. And she’s really never commented about this. You see the press conference.

Ken Burns: I’ve been approached by relatives who said “You know, she’s really not that way.” And there was this attempt to communicate to us, and I said “I’m sure she’s not, bring her on.” And of course the wall of silence was intact.

Sarah Burns: But Fairstein, after the convictions were vacated, you know the civil suit has been an excuse for not talking for my book and for the film. But before that, some of those people did go on the record. Linda Fairstein, as we’ve seen from the film, some of the detectives. But I never found a single public statement from her about that. She’s sort of always, and that may be her following the rules of the District Attorney’s Office and being the good soldier who doesn’t step out of line and talk. But she’s the person who I would most want to really understand what she was thinking and going through then. She’s a much more interesting character. You do feel like she was struggling with something.

I had a basic factual question. Was Fairstein, who was then the head of New York City’s sex crimes unit, in the room when Lederer was asking you questions in those videotaped interviews?

Raymond Santana: I don’t even remember. I can’t remember.

Sarah Burns: None of the reports of that. There were detectives who had been involved in the interrogation sort of standing behind. She usually introduces who’s in the room at the beginning of those tapes. And so it’s sometimes the parents, usually a detective or two and then her. Linda Fairstein was involved early on, and was in the precinct as that stuff was happening. But she wasn’t in court day to day, and she wasn’t involved in the actual videotapes.

Ken Burns: I think it’s important to remember, we refer to Elizabeth Lederer as doing the questioning. That’s the questioning after the interrogations of hours and hours and hours, and this is you now trying to get them to articulate on videotape what they have now been coerced into saying over the course of 15 to 30 hours as children.

I was curious whether Fairstein has been more comfortable exploiting your case because she was directly involved in that transaction, in the interrogation room, in the courtroom. I thought that was an interesting psychological question.

Ken Burns: It is often the position of the bosses, is it not? To take the credit for the work of others. She has had a professional career, and she has retired, and writes novels, and has done so kind of given kind of the extra boost by being the presiding boss of things for the Preppy Murder case and for this. So it is very much in her interest, however tangentially she was in the actual day to day of it, for it not being revealed that they screwed up badly.

What did you think it meant for New York that you have people like Andrea Peyser, who seems like a miserable person, holding on to these obviously coerced confession? What does it mean to have the city subpoening your film and your notes? At a time when crime is rising again, I’m curious what you think it means for New York. And I’m curious what it’s been like for you to come home.

Raymond Santana: You know, I mean, it’s just been one day at a time. One foot in front of the other. You try to make the best that you can. And even though we was exonerated and all charges were dropped, there still wasn’t a lot of press on it, and we didn’t get as much as we did in 1989. You still have this target on your back. You still come across people and when they find out who you are, you’re automatically thinking “Do they think I’m innocent? Or do they think I’m guilty?” And so we dealt with that for a lot of years. It wasn’t until this film came out that it set the record straight. And that’s what we always wanted, that the truth would be out, that people will come and see the film and judge for yourself. And the film has definitely done that. It has set the record straight. And for us it has balanced the slate, more for even now, because people finally get to see the information that was always there, back in 1989, but just too focused on us being guilty. It definitely is part of our healing process. For people to connect with us and see this visual now, and really see us as human beings and not as all the labels we were given back then.

You mentioned you had family at the time who fell into the press coverage. Have they apologized? Have those relationships mended at all?

Raymond Santana: Yes. You know time heals all wounds. And they have come forward, several of them, and have apologized, I went to several family events. And some of them even came to L.A. to see me. We come here, we did the film festivals, we did the premiere. It’s great. At the end of the day, they’re still family, and you don’t forget that. You give them a second chance. Which, we’re learning now, nobody gave us a second chance, but people are starting to do through the film. We have several people come and apologize, and we have accepted those apologies. It helps at the end of the day. It helps that people can recognize and finally see that they were in the wrong also, and it makes them a bigger person to stand up and say “I believed that you were guilty, but I know now that you’re innocent.” It’s a great feeling.

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