Andrew Cunanan

How Andrew Cunanan Became a UFO

by Ken Sanes

The news media tried to fictionalize Andrew Cunanan the way it fictionalizes much of the news today. Many television news programs turned him into a mysterious figure, a character who manifested a bizarre combination of cynical sophistication and cold-blooded evil.

They led us to believe that Cunanan had an almost mystical ability to blend into the crowd. He could change his appearance, at will, they told us, while showing photographs of him with a slightly different look. He was the killer as shape-shifter, slipping through the fingers of police again and again.

But it turns out that the television news media was doing what it often does -- inventing, spinning tales, creating a circus of suffering to lure an audience. Andrew Cunanan was overlooked in Miami Beach not because of a mystical ability to blend in or change his appearance, but because almost no one was looking for him, and, perhaps, because police weren't entirely on the ball in the way they conducted their investigation. Similarly, the pictures of him with all those different looks were well within the normal range of variation, since individuals change over time -- they gain and lose weight, cut their hair and so on. And cameras capture people different ways, as well.

But the more Cunanan stayed out of sight, the more mysterious he seemed to become. In the end, in response to the massive coverage, people started reporting Cunanan all over the United States. He became a variation on our great myth - a UFO - spotted by reasonable, sincere people who were certain they saw something. As with UFOs, the more the media hyped the story, the more Cunanan seemed to manifest around the nation. He became Elvis at the convenience store, Bigfoot, and the mysterious face on Mars.

But it turned out that Cunanan was where common sense said he would be -- hiding like a rat, near the scene of the crime, cornered, because much of the nation was on the lookout for him. For all the hype, the mass saturation coverage did the job, and probably saved some lives.

After Cunanan killed himself, the Miami Beach police, through some odd mistake, told the nation a body hadn't been found. When they finally explained that, well, yes, a body had been found, they still refused to confirm it was him, adding to the sense of unreality and mystery that adhered to the story.

There are lessons in all this, beyond the obvious ones -- about how the media keeps trying to reinvent people and events, to give us something more exciting than the world as it is, and about how decent people make mistakes and believe they see things when their response is just another example of human fallibility.

Andrew Cunanan was emotionally disturbed. In a better society, he might have gotten help and gone a different way. Instead, lives are destroyed. It's time to deflate him - and time for the media to stop playing games with life and death.


Image is from an FBI_Photo of Andrew Cunanan, via Wikimedia Commons.

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