The Assassination of Gianni Versace and the Perils of Accuracy

FX has been on a good streak with shows. The People v OJ Simpson was a great show and I hear only good things about Snowpiercer. Because I liked The People v OJ Simpson, I decided to check out the second installment in the American Crime Story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Compared to The People v OJ Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is slow-going but it gets to be pretty good by the end. I don’t think it ever surpasses the People v OJ Simpson, but it’s definitely compelling television.

Like The People v OJ Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace takes place in the early 90s ad shines a spotlight on how the media covers important social events of the day. For the most part, the spotlight is not flattering, but that’s par for course in some respects. After all, everybody loves to criticize the media. Some more than others–cough cough, Donald Trump–but media critics can be found in almost every industry.

It goes without saying that free and independent media plays an extremely important role in a democratic society, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace avoids any over-the-top anti-media tirades. Instead, the show takes a more nuanced approach and explores issues related to media ethics.

Some organizations completely eschew ethics and release everything they get a hold of, Wikileaks being the most notorious example, but most major media outlets adhere to some set of ethics. Ultimately, however, there is no governing body that polices media outlets when it comes to editorial decisions and every individual outlet must self-police. I think almost anybody who watches The Assassination of Gianni Versace will come away with the impression that self-policing often fails. 

There may no better example of this than Episode 3, A Random Killing. Gianni’s killer came very close to being captured by the police after he killed Lee Miglin. As the show tells it, Gianni’s killer manages to get away, however, because a local radio outlet breaks the story that the police are tracking him by means of a car telephone. He immediately proceeds to disable that car phone and then hijacks a car from a random civilian who he murders execution-style. Much to my surprise, these events weren’t just made up for the show. Granted, we can’t know for sure that Gianni’s killer actually heard the radio announcement, but it is fact that a local outlet broke the story of the live tracking and that Gianni’s killer went on to commit two more grisly killings because he managed to evade capture. 

From an accuracy standpoint, it’s hard to fault the radio outlet. After all, the police really were tracking Gianni’s killer with the car phone and did have plans to arrest him. From a moral standpoint, however, I think the radio outlet was very much in the wrong. The outlet succeeded in giving listeners the inside scoop, but they failed to consider whether the story deserved widespread dissemination. As a result, a serial killer was able to escape justice and went on to kill at least two more people. A terrible tragedy could have been avoided if the outlet had taken greater heed of the perils of accuracy, and I am glad the show creators included this plot detail as it does a great deal to enrich the show’s story. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that the show blunders into the same trap as the radio outlet when it comes to issues of accuracy.

Just to be clear, there is plenty about The Assassination of Gianni Versace that is disputed or inaccurate. However, it does get one very important fact right: the identity of Gianni’s killer. This matters a great deal because Gianni’s killer seems to have been motivated primarily by a desire for fame. Simply put, he wanted his name to be well-known and he considered murder an expedient way to achieve notoriety. By choosing to use the actual name of Gianni’s killer, the show gives him exactly what he wanted.

To be fair, Gianni’s killer is dead so it’s not like he’s rejoicing about his increased fame. Nonetheless, the decision of the show makers to use his actual name is not without consequence. If many viewers are like me, they knew next to nothing of Gianni’s killer before watching the show but now know about some of the most intimate aspects of his life. The show never glorifies Gianni’s killer and his victims do get significant screen time–with the exception of William Reese, we get a decent amount of backstory for all of his victims–but I do think the show could have benefitted by better considering some of the perils of accuracy. All in all, I did enjoy the show and I think there is a great deal about the show that is worth commending. Despite certain misgivings with the show, I recommend it to anyone interested in social history or media ethics.

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