04.01.10

How the Media Got Knox Wrong

In an excerpt from her new Daily Beast book about Amanda Knox, Angel Face, Barbie Latza Nadeau shows how American reporters fell head over heels for the convicted murderer.

Plus, join Barbie Latza Nadeau for a live chat about Angel Face on Wednesday April 7 at 1 p.m. on The Daily Beast. Can’t make it? Send questions for the author to editorial[at]thedailybeast.com.

From the moment they were arrested, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were a circulation bonanza for the Italian media and a front-page staple of the British tabloids. The Italian press funneled leaks from the lawyers and prosecutors to embellish the crime story and quickly dubbed Knox “Angel Face,” fostering a cult of morbid fascination with this most unlikely killer. The tabloids in the United Kingdom, eager to defend the honor of a British victim, mined the saucy details Amanda had inadvertently provided on the Internet, beginning with her MySpace screen name: “Foxy Knoxy.” Calls to teachers and friends in Seattle routinely produced descriptions of an all-American kid, studious, smart, and athletic. But the social networking sites told a somewhat different story. A YouTube video of Amanda drunk spawned the image of a party girl, although, in truth, nearly every coed in America has posted a similar clip. But other entries suggested a darker, more enigmatic personality. “Baby Brother,” a short story Amanda posted on MySpace, is not too unsettling overall, but it includes a rather cavalier reference to rape:

TV producers learned to be very cautious about being seen with people like me, lest the Knox family should cut them off.

Kyle laughed deep in his throat. “Icky Vicky, huh? Jeez, Edgar. You had me going there.” He picked up his calculus book and flicked with his thumb to find his page, shook his head side to side with his smile still confident on his face. “A thing you have to know about chicks is that they don’t know what they want.” Kyle winked his eye. “You have to show it to them. Trust me. In any case,” He cocked his eyebrows up and one side of his mouth rose into a grin. “I think we both know hard A is hardly a drug.”

book-cover---angel-face
Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox By Barbie Latza Nadeau 224 p. Beast Books. $14.95. ()

(“Hard A” is Seattle slang for hard alcohol and usually refers to a toxic cocktail of vodka, whiskey, and schnapps. Amanda and her friends often partied with pot and hard A rather than beer for maximum inebriation.)

Whether or not Amanda meant to condone sexual violence, prosecutors took this story as proof that she had at least fantasized about it. It was there in her mind. Add drugs and alcohol, they reasoned, and it wouldn’t take long for such hidden thoughts to lead to action. And other MySpace entries, including this one, titled “The Model,” posted a few weeks before the murder, seemed to compound this picture of a young women with a vivid, vaguely lurid imagination:

Small, cold fingers curled around my open hand and I gasped, ripping my hand away. Aislin, narrowed hazel eyes and immobile pink lips, flipped on the light of the stairway and stared at me. She was quiet, and the hand that had reached for mine hung limp in the space between us like the wrist was broken. I grabbed her hand back and held it to my lips, kissing the little fingers. It drew her closer to me and she pulled weakly for her hand back. “What are you doing?” I didn’t let her go, but grabbed her wrist and pulled her toward the front window. “Did you lock the back door when you came home from school?”

A picture was forming of Amanda as a vixen with dark impulses, and her family struggled to control the firestorm. They insisted that “Foxy Knoxy” was a nickname Amanda earned for her junior soccer moves, not her sexual magnetism. Time and again, they denied that she ever used the moniker as an adult, despite the fact that it was her MySpace ID. (Among the thirty-nine social networking friends on her stepfather Chris Mellas’s MySpace page was “Foxy Knoxy,” which linked to Amanda’s page.) The image wars proceeded with thrusts and parries: On morning TV shows, Edda would weep and show pictures of Amanda kicking a soccer ball; in the afternoon, the British tabloids would trumpet headlines about her jailhouse lesbian encounters (drawing inferences from entries in her prison diaries and letters to friends, where Amanda worried about becoming gay). Meanwhile, all sorts of people tried to make a buck off the murder. Amanda’s classmates in both Perugia and Seattle asked for cash or plane tickets in exchange for interviews. One of her teachers in Italy offered a TV producer Amanda’s handwritten letter—for 10,000 euros. Tidbits from the legal dossier were shopped around. Coverage of the crime began to diverge on the two sides of the Atlantic. From the vantage point of Perugia, it seemed as though the Knox family’s American supporters were simply choosing to ignore the facts that were coming to light in Italy.

Raffaele had also supplied some troubling information on his social networking sites. He was a rich kid with ready cash to fund a drug habit, and in one Web entry, he bragged about spending “80 percent of his waking hours high.” The background image on his Web pages was a marijuana leaf print, and in almost every picture, he appeared bleary-eyed and tousled. (A police wiretap later heard his father say, “Raffaele, I’ve told you, basta spinelli!” (enough with the joints!). The most damaging picture he posted would be forever etched in the minds of anyone following this case: Wrapped in surgical bandages, Raffaele brandishes a meat cleaver and a jug of alcool, a pink, alcohol-based cleaning liquid.

These were the scraps of information that stoked a media frenzy in Italy. Even before Amanda and Raffaele were officially charged with murder, they were on the front page of every newspaper in the country, usually under headlines such as “Amanda, Sangue e Sorrisi”(Amanda, blood and smiles) and “Uomini e Segreti, Amanda Racconta” (Men and secrets, Amanda tells all). As Amanda’s and Raffaele’s popularity grew, so did the hunger for information about them. Amanda’s face graced the cover of Italy’s most popular grocery aisle glossies, and the murder was the subject of four quick books by Italian journalists. One of the books even came with an animation of the alleged crime on DVD.

THE AMERICAN PRESS HUNG BACK, at first objective and somewhat disbelieving that such a wholesome-seeming girl could have any connection to such a sordid foreign crime, and then, as the family stepped up its defense, increasingly divided between two camps that would become simply the innocentisti—those who believed she was blameless—and the colpevolisti, those who did not. In Perugia, these labels governed access. The prosecutors and defense lawyers all thought they knew exactly where each journalist stood, and those of us who were deemed American colpevolisti were few and far between. Of the handful of American journalists in Perugia in late 2007 and early 2008, none got access to the Knox family without certain guarantees about positive coverage. Within months, the family decided to speak on the record primarily to the American TV networks, often in exchange for airfare and hotel bills. Most of the print press was shut out. And the TV producers learned to be very cautious about being seen with people like me, lest the Knox family should cut them off.

But as interest in the case grew, an odd assortment of American talking heads attached their reputations to Amanda’s innocence. An aggressive support group called Friends of Amanda formed in Seattle, headed by Anne Bremner, a media-savvy criminal lawyer who had cut her teeth as a tough prosecutor in Seattle’s King County Court. She then became a defense lawyer, taking on some of America’s most outrageous cases. (For example, she represented the Des Moines, Washington, police department when it was charged with failing to protect an underage student from sexual relations with schoolteacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who bore two of his children.) A youthful blonde, Bremner was already a network regular before anyone ever heard of Amanda Knox. The attorney had provided round-the-clock media commentary on the Michael Jackson pedophile case and the Scott Peterson murder trial. Bremner quickly embraced Amanda’s cause pro bono, even though the family claimed they’d never met her. Bremner honestly believed that Amanda was being railroaded in Perugia, but she also wanted a piece of the media attention whirling around the case. She frequently spoke on the family’s behalf and might have served them well as the official spokesperson. But the family had other ideas. They hired David Marriott, a mustachioed ex-journalist-cum-public-relations-guru who specialized in crisis management for some of Seattle’s troubled politicos.

Very quickly, Marriott lost control of the situation. As he spoon-fed the Knox-approved message to American outlets that couldn’t afford to send correspondents to Italy, those of us on the ground in Perugia began passing his contradictory e-mails around as entertainment during the long days in the court. In one instance, Marriott confirmed to me that ABC News had paid for Amanda’s parents to fly to Perugia in exchange for exclusivity. When I confronted my friend Ann Wise, an ABC producer based in Italy, she quickly passed on the leak. ABC got a denial from him that he had ever told me this—despite the fact that I had an e-mail to prove it. Similarly, in the spring of 2008, he told me that the Knoxes would not give interviews, and then Rachel Donadio of the New York Times had a sit-down with Amanda’s father, Curt Knox. Marriott told me that Rachel must have door-stepped Curt in Perugia; she confirmed that Marriott had set up the interview for her. What Marriott failed to realize was that the Italy-based press corps was a close-knit group that could not be played against each other.

Meanwhile, the networks started vying for the Knoxes’ attention with their own legal analysts. Among the first was Joe Tacopina, a sexy Italian American New York lawyer who keeps a media clip file of his high-profile cases. His famous clients included Jordan Van der Sloot, the Dutch student implicated in the murder of Natalee Holloway in Aruba; and Raffaello Follieri, Anne Hathaway’s rogue Italian con man. In the spring of 2008, Tacopina came to Perugia as a paid consultant for ABC News to investigate the real story behind the Kercher murder, and I interviewed him for Newsweek in Rome in March. He said he was acting as a consultant to the family, even though he was being paid by ABC, and he was the first to call foul on the missteps by Italian investigators. But he also told me that deep down, he wasn’t sure about Amanda’s story.

“Her best defense, I think, is probably going to be the truth. Am I saying she didn’t make mistakes? No. And do I know for a fact that she’s innocent? Of course not.”

That was the end of Joe Tacopina’s involvement in the case and the beginning of more aggressive message control out of Seattle. Andrea Vogt, a Bologna-based freelancer stringing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote her own story about Tacopina’s behavior in Perugia, and Marriott quickly tried to shut her down. Typically, Marriott denied that my interview had even taken place, and he told Andrea that “the reporter got it wrong.” Not convinced, Andrea called me. I gave her a transcript of the interview and a copy of the tape, and we began what would be a two-year battle against the Seattle message machine, incurring personal attacks and outright threats. Andrea and I became known on the pro-Amanda blogs as “Void and No Clue,” and I was often referred to as a “failed travel writer,” despite a career of thirteen-plus years covering Italy’s major news events for Newsweek.

Editor's Note: Andrea Vogt is a freelance writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. A previous version of this article referred to the newspaper as the Press-Intelligencer.

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Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.