Washington Post syndicated columnist George F. Will writes, "‘Central Park Five’: Recalling a gross injustice."
From Tom Paine’s “Common Sense” to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” American history is replete with examples of printed words accelerating social justice. Still, from Mathew Brady’s 1862 photo exhibit of “The Dead of Antietam” to the televised fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 to the cameras that brought Vietnam into American living rooms, graphic journalism has exercised unique power to open minds and hence shape history. It may do so Tuesday evening when PBS broadcasts “The Central Park Five,” a meticulous narrative of a gross miscarriage of justice.
There were abundant dystopian aspects of New York City in the 1980s, when crime, crack and AIDS produced a perfect storm of anxiety about the fraying social fabric. This was the context — a city on edge — when on April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white woman who worked on Wall Street went for a jog after dark in Central Park. She became a victim of what was immediately called “wilding,” a word probably unknown by the four blacks and one Hispanic, ages 14 to 16, who were arrested and charged with raping her and beating her nearly to death.
Journalism, like almost every other profession relevant to this case, did not earn any honors. Until now. The only solace to be derived from this sad story is that it now is a story memorably told. A society’s justice system can improve as a result of lurches into officially administered injustice. The dialectic of injustice, then revulsion, then reform often requires the presentation of sympathetic victims to a large audience, which “The Central Park Five” does.
Finally, this recounting of a multifaceted but, fortunately, not fatal failure of the criminal justice system buttresses the conservative case against the death penalty: Its finality leaves no room for rectifying mistakes, but it is a government program, so . . .
More on Ken Burns' documentary, "Justice and the Central Park Five," at the PBS website. It airs Tuesday evening, April 16. Check your local schedule for the time in your market.
Related posts are in the documentary index.