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THE CRIMINOLOGIST
James Alan Fox and his classroom of millions

BY IAN DONNIS

James Alan Fox became a media darling when a study of mass murderers that he co-wrote with Northeastern University colleague Jack Levin in the early '80s received an unexpectedly large amount of national interest. It didn't take him long to realize that public fascination with gruesome crimes, combined with a knack for snappy presentation, could significantly expand the reach of his message beyond that of the typical academic. His credits now include 15 books, innumerable interviews, appearances on the Today show, 20/20, Oprah, 48 Hours, and Dateline, testimony before Congress on a dozen occasions, and private briefings on youth violence for former-attorney general Janet Reno. As Fox says, "I like to say I see myself as having a classroom of millions."

So it was no wonder that the usual steady stream of media calls to Fox's cell phone reached an unprecedented crescendo -- well into the hundreds -- during the recent sniper attacks that terrorized the Washington suburbs.

Yet during myriad interviews prior to the arrest last week of John A. Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, Fox seemed no more prescient than the other experts who helped fill the cable news networks' overheated appetite for wall-to-wall sniper coverage. It's difficult to refute some observations, such as when Fox told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, "This is a man who is motivated by his desire to be important," or that the shooter was enjoying the cat-and-mouse game with police. But when a second mid-October weekend passed without a fresh attack, Fox told an ABC affiliate in Baltimore, "He's a weekday warrior. Even snipers have jobs."

Larry J. Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics (Free Press, 1991), has a concise view of what separates informed opinion from empty speculation in such a case. "The key is whether you are being asked about your real expertise and whether you are actually adding something to the discussion," Sabato says. "If you are being asked about subjects that are not in your area of expertise, and you're simply part of the speculative chitchat with the reporters and the anchors, they can use somebody off the street. You're not adding anything."

But Fox dismisses attempts "to do scorecards on all the profilers." After all, the investigation was initially thrown off course by a misplaced focus on a white van; as the New York Times reported, police in Baltimore and Washington encountered the suspects' blue Caprice at least 10 times prior to their arrest. The accuracy of the experts' comments in the sniper case, Fox says, is "not really the issue here. We answer questions when we're asked. If we're not asked, we don't answer." (In fairness, even hundreds of investigators in the case seemingly had little to go on until Muhammad reportedly implicated himself in an unsolved shooting in Montgomery, Alabama.)

In 1995, USA Today dubbed Fox "the dean of death" -- a tribute to his facility for delivering insight and expertise in succinct sound bites. Fox Butterfield, who covers national criminal-justice trends from Boston for the New York Times, almost invariably quotes Fox in his crime stories. The professor's own online media bio -- replete with his office, home, and cell-phone numbers, along with info on his publications, countless media appearances, and a characterization of him as "arguably the nation's foremost criminologist" -- includes details on his availability for live interviews via satellite from a studio in Norwood, Massachusetts. Fox, 50, deliberately leaves his cell phone on when he sleeps or, in a concession to his beleaguered wife, sometimes sets it to vibrate instead.

"Some people might say it's just vanity," he adds. "They can say that -- and I can't deny that I enjoy, within reason, being in the media -- but I also feel that I am able to much better impact policy and society than if I was just to teach in my classes and publish in scholarly journals."

To his credit, Fox -- who has a strong track record forecasting crime trends -- has been a vocal critic of misguided policies, such as three-strikes laws. He has also raised awareness about neglected facts (in the '90s he coined the phrase "prime time for youth crime" to illustrate how most youth crime takes place after school), and called for more difficult, but effective strategies to curb youth violence, such as adding after-school programs and lengthening the school day.

"The research done in my discipline is vitally important for public policy," he says. "If criminologists don't speak up, don't share the knowledge base, the discipline, then others will be happy to do so and not necessarily correctly. Isn't it better that the public debate be informed by research and not just speculation and unsupported opinion? There are academics who do cloister themselves in the academy, afraid that they might get misquoted if they talk to a reporter. That's okay for them, but that's not me. I do research so that a lot of people can learn about it, not just a few."

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

Issue Date: November 1 - 7, 2002