The New York Times’ Rosenthal, the Myth of the Bystander Effect

The ideals of journalism are facts, confirmed sources, and unbiased reporting. It should be the mission of every news source to adhere to these principles, but the reality is that human nature interferes—opinions, emotions, and personal agendas. Thus, we are surrounded by biased media who cherry-pick sources, manipulate narratives, and report with the intention to influence public opinion. As revealed in The Witness, the 2015 documentary film about the Kitty Genovese murder, the well-renowned The New York Times is not above such questionable means (Solomon, 2015).

Newspapers, along with other communications media in America, are important sources for information. Atop the ivory tower of American newspapers is The New York Times. Its impressive circulation numbers show that The New York Times is a main source of local, national, and international news for Americans from the well-educated to the merely informed.

The New York Times’ heavy influence is demonstrated time and time again; just recently its reporter Emily Steele is credited for bringing down Fox News’ highly successful host Bill O’Reilly (Lutz, 2017, Apr 20). Further, since its start in the mid 19th century, The New York Times has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize 122 times, which is more than any other publication worldwide. (“Pulitzer Prizes”, 2017; “The New York Times“, 2017).

A. M. Rosenthal
A. M. (Abe) Rosenthal

Abraham Michael (Abe) Rosenthal was entrusted with upholding the famous newspaper’s reputation when he took over as editor in 1977. His enormously successful career at The New York Times spanned six decades from the 1940s to the 1990s, during which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Grave marker for A. M. Rosenthal, Westchester County, New York, USA
Grave marker for A. M. Rosenthal, Westchester County, New York, USA

Upon Rosenthal’s death, his grave marker was inscribed, “HE KEPT THE PAPER STRAIGHT.” Assuming the epitaph means that Rosenthal preserved the integrity of journalism, and does not refer to his well-known homophobic stance, it is unfortunately inaccurate considering a rather significant blemish on his reporting—the story of Kitty Genovese and the “38 witnesses.”

Kitty Genovese, a young woman who worked as a barmaid, was randomly and savagely murdered by Winston Moseley at Queens, NY in March of 1964. The incident occurred between 3:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m. outside her multi-tenant complex. A handful of its residents heard her screams and saw portions of the first of two attacks. One resident yelled for Moseley to go away, which he did as Genovese staggered her way into the building and out of witnesses’ line of sight.

Tragically for Genovese, Moseley returned and stalked her to the hallway of her apartment building, and stabbed her life away. The second attack was partly witnessed by a resident named Karl Ross, who called the police while Genovese lay dying in another resident’s arms. Each and every murder is horrific, but this one especially caught Rosenthal’s attention. Why? What is his job? Selling newspapers, of course!

What Sells Newspapers?

What sells newspapers? Sensationalist reporting! Rosenthal supposedly got a loose tip from the police commissioner about some 30 or 40 people who were interviewed after the Genovese murder, and, with no other information beyond the numbers, used this in an announcement to America through his powerfully influential newspaper.

The New York Times’ Martin Gansberg wrote an article stating that nothing was done to save this young, innocent woman who was in a desperate situation (Gansberg, 1964). This irresponsible reporting had a tremendous, long-lasting, and devastating effect on the Genovese family and on American society.

It falsely perpetuated New York’s image as a cold, and uncaring place, and it effectively created a new investigative field in Psychology. “Bystander apathy” and “diffusion of responsibility” have been written about, discussed, and taught in psychology classes in both high school and college classes ever since. Additionally, the concept of “Kitty Genovese and the 38 witnesses” has made its way to pop culture: film and television, literature, music and theater.

However, there is a problem here. These 38 witnesses were almost non-existent! The 38 witnesses sold newspapers, but they were exaggeration, a large stretching of the truth, and at worse, a mere fabrication. Beyond the purpose of selling newspapers, why would Abe Rosenthal, editor of The New York Times, do this?

Consider the quote he liked by Irwin Shaw (Gupte, 2014, May 3).

There is the reward of the story-teller, sitting cross-legged in a bazaar, filling the need of humanity in the humdrum course of the ordinary day for magic and distant wonders, for disguised moralizing that will set everyday transactions into larger perspectives, for the compression of great matters into digestible portions, for the shaping of mysteries into sharply edged symbols. Then there is the private and exquisite reward of escaping from the laws of consistency. Today, you are sad, and you tell a sad story. Tomorrow you are happy and your tale is a joyful one.

Thirty-eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case, book by A.M. Rosenthal

A storyteller in a bazaar? Is that how Rosenthal saw himself when he published the emotional and exaggerated story of Kitty Genovese? Shortly after, he capitalized on the story by writing a book entitled, Thirty Eight Witnesses (Rosenthal, 1964).

Rosenthal’s powerful convictions about this horrific crime led to imperviousness about the inconvenient facts. Was the story of Kitty Genovese and the 38 witnesses written to suit morality, and then shaped to fit a narrative? Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker stated, “The real Kitty Genovese Syndrome has to do with our susceptibility to narratives that echo our perceptions and anxieties” (Lemann, 2014).

Abe Rosenthal never moved from his stance even after it was clear that the original story was grossly overstated. He even wrote a new introduction for the paperback edition of Thirty Eight Witnesses: “Neighbors heard her scream her last half hour away, and did nothing, nothing at all to give her succor or even cry alarm” (Rosenthal, 1999).

The following anecdote suggests Rosenthal’s emotional connection to the story.

In 2004, at a 40th Anniversary Conference held at Fordham University, Rosenthal said that his sister, Bess, had died many years earlier following a similar incident. As she walked home, a flasher exposed himself to her. She was terrified and ran all the way home; then, she caught a cold and never recovered.

I feel Bess was murdered by the man as Kitty was murdered by the monster who murdered her. The incident and illness were one.

When a mind is shaped by emotions, experience, and opinions, facts and logic can go by the wayside. However, it seems a shame that the focus on the 38 witnesses and concepts of bystander apathy and diffusion of responsibility distracted from the real culprit—the killer himself.

A Deranged and Brutal Killer

How does a married, home-owning man with two children and a decent job commit an act of such brutality? What drove his urges to prowl for women to kill, then rape? Was it a head injury?

Supposedly, Moseley suffered a head injury in an accidental collision with a moving train. No research has been done on this thought; however, Mosley himself felt it was relevant to put in a letter to an author who was researching his life story. However, people endure concussions and brain damage, but do not go on to become killers.

Winston Moseley
Winston Moseley

Was it his upbringing or relationship with his mother? His childhood was certainly not ideal, with parents who had separated.

Fannie Moseley left her husband, Al, and their son, Winston, who saw her only two times from age 9 until 18. In his late teens, Moseley learned that the man he called his dad was not his biological father, thus confusing him further.

As an adult, Moseley never knew whether his mother was living with her lover, with her ex-husband Al Moseley, or with him. Despite this, he never expressed resentment towards his mother. While he offered no explanation for why he prowled, raped, and killed women, it is curious that he sought them out in places where his mother once lived or worked.

It is also interesting to note that Moseley started attacking women after his mother moved in with him. While an absentee mother is deeply traumatic for any child, is it an overwhelming factor driving someone to murder?

Upon her son’s arrest and incarceration, Fannie Moseley was vocal in her beliefs that the justice system was unfair to her son, and that they disregarded the promise he had shown as a young person. She felt he could have been a productive member of society if people had treated him decently. Apparently, she did not look in the mirror.

After arrest, Moseley spend the rest of his life in jail despite applying for parole 18 times, all of which resulted in denial. The Witness does not detail how Moseley escaped from jail to rape two more women. Four years after murdering Kitty Genovese, Winston Moseley stuck a tuna can so far up his rectum that surgery was required for removal. Upon his return from the hospital, he overpowered a prison guard, escaped, and was on the run for four days before he was caught.

America’s Focus on Society and Not the Killer

Winston Moseley had serious mental problems, as does every murderer. Yet, the focus was on the 38 witnesses, not on him. Just as in the aftermath of a mass shooting, most of the focus is on gun control, not the killer.

Society didn’t kill Kitty Genovese. Neither did New Yorkers. One man did. His name was Winston Moseley. He was a criminal. A rapist. A murderer. An evil man. He told police that he had driven around looking for someone to kill. He’s still serving a life-sentence today for his crimes. Too often the media and sociologists use society to either shift blame for evil actions, or excuse bad behavior. Moseley was responsible. Accountable. Answerable for his actions. Just like we all are (Weliever, 2014).

A.M. Rosenthal participated in America’s tendency to put the focus on society and not the killer, and that trend has serious ramifications on our country’s appalling mental health system. Nobody knows what to do when someone is acting weird. Remember Adam Lanza and Dylan Roof?

The New York Times is not the only institution, by a long shot, that has succumbed to the temptation to manipulate the truth to fit a more convenient narrative. In 2004, Americans were swept off their feet by the story of the handsome Pat Tillman, an NFL Football Player who left a $3.6 million contract with Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army as a Ranger.

Tillman, a passionate Patriot who was motivated by the September 11 terrorist attacks, answered a personal calling beyond his football career. Obviously, a soldier of Tillman’s stature was an incredible public relations opportunity for the U.S. Army recruiting effort.

Most tragically, this soldier’s life was short as he was killed serving his country in Afghanistan. Upon first reports that he was killed by the enemy in a hostile ambush, Americans grieved the loss of this outstanding soldier. It was not until later that the truth was revealed; it was friendly fire, not the enemy’s, that ended the life of Corporal Pat Tillman. No less admirable and inspirational is the memory of Tillman, but the facts of his death were suspiciously covered up by the U.S. Army, which was a grave disservice to his family.

Like the Genovese Family, the bereft Tillmans were left in an emotional agony as Congress and the Department of Defense investigated a potential murder to prevent them from expressing possible criticism of the Iraq War. No exaggeration, or misrepresentation of the truth justifies the turmoil of the victim’s family. (“Report: Army knew Tillman died from friendly fire”, 2001).

No Source of News is Infallible

It would do Americans good to pause to remember that no single source of news is infallible, and that includes The New York Times. Some argue that good things such as the 911 Service came out of The New York Times’ misrepresenting the truth, but I am one to consider the Genovese family’s ordeal.

For over fifty years, they were tortured with the devastating thought that their beloved Kitty was brutally murdered and died alone, while 38 indifferent spectators ignored her screams for help. Bill Genovese’s relentless quest for the truth enabled the family to heal, reminisce about Kitty, look at photos of her, share her memory with future generations, take comfort in the joy she brought her family and friends, and celebrate her unique life.


Bystander effect

Individuals who see or hear an emergency (but are otherwise uninvolved) are called bystanders. The bystander effect describes a reported phenomenon in which people are less likely to offer help when others are present.

Diffusion of responsibility

Diffusion of responsibility, also called the “bystander effect,” describes a psychological phenomenon in which people feel less motivated to take action when a number of people are present.


Gansberg, M. (1964). 37 Who saw murder didn’t call the police; Apathy at stabbing of Queens woman shocks inspector 37 SAW MURDER BUT DIDN’T CALL Path of victim: Stabber’s third attack was fatal. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Gupte, P. (2014, May 3). Abe Rosenthal: The man I remember every day. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Lemann, N. (2014. Mar 10). A Call for Help. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

Lutz, E. (2017). Bill O’Reilly was taken down by New York Times reporter he threatened in 2015. CNBC. Retrieved from

McFadden, R. (2016). Winston Moseley, who killed Kitty Genovese, dies in prison at 81. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Pulitzer Prizes. (2017). The New York Times. Retrieved from

Report: Army knew Tillman died from friendly fire. (2005, May 4). USA Today. Retrieved from

Rosenthal, A. (1964). Thirty-eight witnesses (1st ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rosenthal, A. (1999). Thirty-eight witnesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Solomon, J. [Director]. (2015). The Witness [MOTION PICTURE]. USA: Five More Minutes Productions.

The New York Times. (2017). Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Weliever, K. (2014). Reflections on the Kitty Genovese murder. The Preachers Word. Retrieved from

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