The ‘now you tell us’ department. How did we get so many stories so terribly wrong?

Moral panics and institutional failure.

The headlines of recent decades: ritual satanic abuse in daycare centers, gangs of wilding youth, worse still superpredators among our youth, fiendish crack addicts and zombie-like meth heads, frivolous lawsuits and frightening pop music. And our response: jailing innocent people, handing people hellishly long prison sentences, torture, attacking the civil justice system, seeking to censor art, etc.

It’s clear nowadays that things went terribly wrong. But it was the experts who made horrible calls about monsters under our beds and it was a willing the public who became too frighten to bend down and look.  The pack mentality of the media often produced an endless freak show of our worst fears confirmed, a parade of the usual suspects, empty reassurance by those in authority, solutions to all the wrong problems. Much of what was publicized, reported, and believed simply wasn’t true. The real sources of harm and suffering neglected.

To see how these stories came about, The New York Times has produced a series of short news documentaries revisiting old stories where the story started out way ahead of the facts and the media’s hype along with the  public’s panic, ensured the story would never be bound by facts. It’s a remarkable series that you’ll keep wondering, “now they tell us” but also how did we get so many stories so terribly wrong?

Retro Report | The New York Times

McMartin Preschool: Anatomy of a Panic

In 1984, news reports that hundreds of children had been abused at a California preschool helped spread panic across the nation. But the case was not all it seemed and its impact continues to be felt.

The Superpredator Scare

After a surge of teen violence in the early 1990s, some social scientists predicted the future was going to be a whole lot worse. Reality proved otherwise.

3 Strikes and You're Out: After 20 Years, Is the Law Working?

After the 1993 murder of a child, many states passed laws to lock up repeat offenders for life, but today those laws are raising new questions about how crime is handled in America.

Crack Babies: A Tale From the Drug Wars

Retro Report: In the 1980s, many government officials, scientists and journalists warned that the country would be plagued by a generation of "crack babies." They were wrong.

Heroin and the War on Drugs

In the 1970s, frustration over heroin related, urban crime led to the War on Drugs. Today, heroin is back. But the users, and the response, are very different.

Sex, Drugs and Gore

Offended by lyrics they deemed too sexual and violent, Tipper Gore and Susan Baker campaigned to put warning labels on albums in 1985. Years later, warning labels have ended up in unexpected places.

Liebeck V. McDonalds: The Big Burn

In 1992, Stella Liebeck spilled scalding McDonald's coffee in her lap and later sued the company, attracting a flood of negative attention. It turns out, there’s more to the story.

Abuse Documentary: The Shame of the Catholic Church

Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has been making headlines for years. Some priests have been punished, but what about the bishops who shielded them?

Anatomy of an Interrogation

The story of the first and only CIA contractor to be convicted in a torture-related case after an interrogation.

Olympic Bombing 1996: Richard Jewell, the Wrong Man

The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta were rocked by a bomb that killed one and injured more than 100. In the rush to find the perpetrator, one man became a target. There was only one problem. He was innocent.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: In the Wake of Disaster

In 1989, a tanker ran aground off the coast of Alaska, causing one of the worst oil spills in United States history. Nearly 25 years later, the lessons of the Exxon Valdez continue to resonate.

And finally, The Central Park Five

In 1989 there were 3,254 reported rapes in New York City. One made us question our whole system of justice. The story of the Central Park Five