WASHINGTON 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.
After up to 30 hours of separate interrogations by detectives who are paid to be suspicious of suspects, four of the five confessed to a crime they did not commit. Why? Watch this documentary by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns. To see the old videotapes of the interrogations is to understand the dynamic that sent the five to prison in spite of the absence of evidence to bolster a rickety case that consisted entirely of those contradictory confessions.