On July 29, 1976, serial killer David Berkowitz – known as the Son of Sam – committed the first of his notorious murders in the outer boroughs of New York City. Over the next year, he would kill again five more times and injure at least seven along the way, despite being at the center of what became one of the largest manhunts in New York history.
Everything about the case was bizarre. Berkowitz wrote taunting, typo-ridden letters to the police and the press, seeming to relish in the terror that gripped the city in the wake of each attack. Because he was targeting primarily young women with dark hair, sales of wigs reportedly skyrocketed. Because his attacks happened at night, once-popular discos in Queens and the Bronx became ghost towns. His eventual capture, on August 10th, 1977, made headlines worldwide, as did the revelation that he’d told investigators he received instructions to kill from his neighbor’s dog.
Berkowitz didn’t represent the end of an era in the way Charles Manson did; he didn’t evade capture like the Zodiac Killer; he wasn’t as prolific as John Wayne Gacy. There aren’t many questions left about why a pudgy, deeply disturbed 23-year-old postal worker with abandonment issues terrorized the women of New York. But even so, the media frenzy surrounding the murders was unprecedented, particularly in the tabloids. If Watergate a few years earlier had built up any public good will toward journalists, the New York Post and Daily News had squandered most of it by the end of the Son of Sam trial. Of all the lasting effects of Berkowitz’s crimes, one of the more insidious repercussions was that they helped Rupert Murdoch find a foothold in the United States.
Though the Daily News was the city’s more popular tabloid at the time, Murdoch purchased the once-liberal New York Post in late 1976, when he was still just a relatively unknown Australian media mogul. But he was already famous in the U.K. and Australia for his tabloid sensibilities. According to Jonathan Mahler’s 2005 book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, Murdoch had earned the nickname the “tit-and-bum king” on London’s Fleet Street for his breast-centric makeover of The Sun newspaper.
The first indication of the Post‘s new direction came in July 1977, after the New York City blackout resulted in a wave of looting and arson. Using his innate ability to know when scared people can be exploited, Murdoch ran a “Blackout Special” edition of the paper that displayed all the sensationalism and race-baiting for which he’s now an icon. Though the issue got plenty of criticism – including from New York City Mayor Abe Beame, who said the Post “made Hustler look like the Harvard [Law] Review” – it sold like gangbusters. It was all the encouragement Murdoch needed to start a frantic battle of one-upmanship with the Daily News.
A year before any of that, surprisingly little was made of how just after 1 a.m. on July 29th, 1976, a man carrying a paper bag approached a car where two young women were chatting. The friends, 18-year-old Donna Lauria and 19-year-old Jody Valenti, had just returned from a club and were parked in the Pelham Bay neighborhood of the Bronx. The stranger pulled a .44 caliber Charter Arms Bulldog out of the bag and fired three shots, killing Lauria instantly and injuring Valenti.
Though Berkowitz shot (though ultimately did not kill) four more young victims in Queens neighborhoods that year, it would take until the following January, when a young couple was attacked on their way home from a movie, for police to sense that the crimes were connected – and for the tabloids to smell blood. One of the victims in the January attack, 26-year-old Christine Freund, died of her injuries, marking the second young woman murdered by Berkowitz. Another murder in March and two more in April began a wave of fear that started in Queens and, following a massive push from the local press, crested over the rest of the five boroughs. As Mahler put it in his book: “The frenzied coverage fanned the growing sense of fear; the growing sense of fear fanned the frenzied coverage.”
To be fair, the police investigation was a shit-show ripe for scrutiny – the Post and Daily News were just stooping to the challenge. Fresh off a round of layoffs, the police department was ill-equipped to handle an investigation of that magnitude – especially one sparking so much public furor. At the scene of the April murders, investigators found a letter addressed to NYPD Captain Joseph Borelli – the first of the notes Berkowitz would send. In it, the killer referred to himself as “the Son of Sam” (the birth of the nickname) and suggested he was following orders from his “father.” Naturally, when the Daily News got the tip, they ran it as a front-page story.
Berkowitz apparently liked the attention so much that he sent a letter to Daily News‘ star columnist Jimmy Breslin, describing “the gutters of NYC which are filled with dog manure.” The police asked Breslin to publish the note, and the paper acquiesced with a plea for the murderer to turn himself in – though not until after it ran several days’ worth of teaser stories about what the letter contained.
Feeling scooped, Murdoch directed the Post‘s Breslin-equivalent, Steve Dunleavy, to make a story out of anything he could find – even if it required the kind of U.K. tabloid tactics that, at the time, made most respectable reporters nauseous. Of course, if the Post was looking for sensationalism, there was plenty to work with: between the lack of leads and the influx of anonymous tips, police were spinning their wheels, calling in psychics and astrologers to give insight into the case and even analyzing Jimi Hendrix lyrics for clues.
It’s possible all the media attention provoked Berkowitz to kill again. Serial killers will sometimes use press coverage to validate further crimes, according to Dr. Ronald M. Holmes, professor emeritus at the University of Louisville in the Department of Criminal Justice Administration, who’s completed over 500 criminal profiles for police departments. “I believe that the press does ‘help’ in the commission of some crimes, especially serial murder,” Dr. Holmes explained in an email to Rolling Stone. “[Serial killers] have a sense of invincibility, and their fantasies are so strong that the news about their crimes only goes on to convince them that [they] cannot be caught and ‘must’ continue on with their predations.”
Berkowitz’s final attack occurred in Brooklyn on July 31st, 1977, where he shot another young couple, Stacy Moskowitz and Bobby Violante. Somehow, Dunleavy had managed to position himself so that he arrived at the hospital alongside the victims’ parents, eating the Daily News’s lunch the next day with an exclusive about the “13-and-a-half hour vigil.” In a Rolling Stone profile of Dunleavy from 1979, Chet Flippo wrote that the Post reporter followed up that story with “a front-page appeal to the Son of Sam to give himself up. To the Post, not the police.”
An eyewitness account at the Moscowitz murder scene led police to a parking ticket issued to Berkowitz, which led them to his Yonkers apartment and brought about his arrest. While in custody, he told police that he received his instructions to kill from his neighbor, Sam Carr, who communicated through his demonic dog and who himself was inhabited by the devil. Determining that this may have been a fiction to paint himself as insane, the state declared Berkowitz mentally fit to stand trial. He was sentenced to 365 years in prison and currently resides in a correctional facility in upstate New York. (He converted to Christianity in the late Eighties and now goes by the name “Son of Hope.” Tapes of him giving sermons are for sale.)
If police thought the fervor would settle down after Berkowitz’s capture, they were giving the tabloid-reading public too much credit. The day after the arrest, the Post ran a front-page story—”CAUGHT!”—16 additional stories and, most famously, the first entry in a serialized novel that the paper claimed “may have inspired” Son of Sam. According to Mahler, four journalists, from the Post and the Daily News, but also from Time and the Washington Post – the same paper that had made journalism look so good during Watergate – were arrested trying to break into Berkowitz’s Yonkers apartment. Dunleavy got hold of some old love letters that Son of Sam sent to a girlfriend and so the Post ran a front-page story titled, “How I Became a Mass Killer.” (Wrote Flippo: “Even Rupert Murdoch conceded later that the Post had gone a little overboard with that one.”)
In starting a modern tabloid war, Rupert Murdoch’s Post reshaped the entire narrative of the killings. Sure, Berkowitz was a scary and unknowable threat, but he wasn’t wildly prolific when placed in the pantheon of 20th-century serial killers. What Murdoch understood inherently is that fear sells papers. Both the Daily News and the Post moved millions of copies the day after Berkowitz was caught – far above their daily averages. Somehow the tabloids had managed to get ahead of more staid journalistic institutions, not only capitalizing on the Son of Sam murders but actually becoming a part of the narrative by communicating – sometimes directly – with the killer. Murdoch reinvigorated the kind of yellow journalism that hadn’t been seen in American media in generations.
“I think the Son of Sam murders really kind of broke new ground for sensationalism by the tabloid press of New York,” says Mark Feldstein, a media historian and professor at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism. Though he argues that the treatment was, in some ways, a natural progression from the journalism of the time, “unquestionably Murdoch imported to the United States those hyper-aggressive, sensational tabloid tactics that he used successfully in England and in Australia. Before Murdoch, American news coverage was much more restrained, by and large.”
Before the Son of Sam, local crime stories were relegated to beat reporters at serious newspapers and went largely ignored by national outlets and TV newsmen, but the tabloid strategy caught on after the case. “Tabloids have always tended to highlight one particular story, and especially a hot story like that,” said Feldstein. “Television didn’t used to be like that so much – Walter Cronkite and these stolid newsmen turned their noses up at the down-market sensationalism. But now you have the network newscast operating much more like the tabloids.”
It’s not that people weren’t horrified by the tabloids’ treatment of the case. The New York Times and the New Yorker lambasted the Post and the Daily News for their negligent handling of the story. The New York legislature preemptively pushed for a law that prevented criminals from monetizing their crimes by selling their stories – the country’s first so-called Son of Sam law. The haste with which the law was passed suggests a desire to punish the media as much as the murderer – Berkowitz claimed he didn’t even want to sell his story. But the sales figures that the Daily News and the Post were pulling proved that big audiences could stomach plenty of journalistic irresponsibility.
While it’s hard to draw a straight line from the Son of Sam coverage to the clickbait of 2016, the similarities are undeniable: Stories only mildly relevant to the actual news getting above-the-fold attention, hot takes that are less fact and more fact-adjacent sucking all the air out of the room, shaping the way the public takes in any given story. Cable and Internet news, wildly reliant on this approach, seem like direct descendants of the new media norm that the competing dailies created around the Son of Sam. With their handling of the case, the tabloids showed that they could pad out a salacious story by harping on the parts most likely to shock and terrify – and the rest of the media hasn’t looked back.