Thursday, July 7, 2011

MURDERER OR MEDIA STAR? YOU BE THE JUDGE

There have been two trials that fully captured my attention: The first, of course was O.J., who I personally found guilty on the first day of court. The other was Scott Peterson back in 2004, who I found guilty before the trial started. I guess it would be wise to not select me for jury duty, huh? I am, however, baffled by the intense attention that the Casey Anthony case garnered nationwide. Why did so many people invest so much of their emotional life into a case about a mother allegedly murdering her child?

What Anthony was accused of doing is not as unusual as you might think. According to the American Anthropological Association, about 200 mothers kill their children every year in this country. Two hundred. For children under the age of five who are murdered in the U.S., a parent is almost always the killer. Further, right now there are 53 women on death row in the U.S., and 11 of them are there because they killed their own children.

Consider Rachel Summers. At 19, the Tennessee mother had an argument with the father of her child, and subsequently beat the child with a table leg, forced rat poison down his throat and smothered him. A couple of years ago, Michelle Kehoe,(left) an Iowa woman, slashed the throats of her two sons, aged 2 and 7. Then there is Migdalia Vera, a Queens, NY mother accused of stabbing her cerebral-palsy afflicted son to death just a few months ago. The list goes on, but have you ever heard of Summers, Kehoe or Vera? Neither had I. That’s my point. Were their crimes less heinous than Anthony’s, or just less interesting? Or was it simply that media failed to give them the inappropriate hype that was granted to the Anthony debacle?

I vote for the latter. We media consumers respond heavily to extreme situations. Let’s face it – without extremes like Casey Anthony, unlikely pundits like Nancy Grace (below, right) would not have careers. Grace, in her usual overtly biased speak-before-you-think broadcast style, said this after the Anthony verdict was revealed: “The devil is dancing tonight.” Grace, who has made no bones about her disdain for Anthony and her confidence in the defendant’s guilt, has dedicated most of her nightly HLN program to the Anthony trial for weeks. She even gave Anthony a nickname – “Tot Mom.” In fact, the entire HLN network has dedicated itself so fully to the Anthony trial, that one wonders how it will sustain its viewership now that its flagship topic has reached its stunning conclusion.

So convinced was HLN that the Anthony trial was ratings gold, that it evidently assigned each of its TV hosts to cover almost nothing other than the case. Dr. Drew Pinsky, addiction specialist, turned his whole program over to the case. Even Joy Behar, the likeable, affable stand-up comic and “The View” co-host, was apparently directed to forgo her engaging panels of humorists in favor of non-stop blabber about Casey Anthony. It is almost surreal: Suddenly we have an internist playing psychologist, a former prosecutor (Grace) playing judge – and jury, and a stand-up comedienne playing legal analyst. If it’s that easy to alter your persona, I think I’ve decided to become Brad Pitt.

If you’re wondering why media is so trial-obsessed, you can chalk it up to two things: cable television’s incessant and unrelenting competition to shock you, and the mega-coverage precedent set in the 1990s by people like Larry King and Geraldo Rivera during the O.J. trial. At least that trial attracted our attention because it decided the fate of a former national football hero and TV pitchman who may have slashed his wife to death. Pretty juicy. Like the Anthony trial, the endless O.J. trial made new careers for media people like Greta Van Susteren. Van Susteren was a criminal defense attorney who got lucky enough to be hired by CNN as a legal analyst during the trial coverage, and has been on TV every night since.

We are trial-obsessed because the media has struck gold with its coverage. Do you truly believe that all of those people standing outside waiting for the Anthony verdict to be read seriously cared about Caylee Anthony’s death? Media is so powerful that it can sometimes cause us to believe things about ourselves that may or may not be real. Would those same people who stood outside the courthouse do the same for the seven-year-old boy in New Orleans who took the witness stand last week to detail alleged rapes he endured at the hands of his teenage neighbor, Daryl Scott? And gosh, how disappointed they all would have been when the jury finally revealed it could not reach agreement, even though the child said “It hurt and it burned” when asked what it felt like to be raped. Media ignored the case. The same can be said for the Daniel Kelly (above, right) case in Philadelphia. Kelly is on trial for the 2006 starvation death of his 14-year-old daughter who weighed 42 pounds when she died. Ever heard of it? Apparently neither has Nancy Grace – or Dr. Drew. Or Joy Behar. Or People Magazine.

Is media deciding what should matter to you? Is a seven-year-old rape victim less ratings-worthy than a three-year-old murder victim? Is there a racial component here? It is not very often that we become trial-obsessed with black people, or Hispanic people, or Asian people. The frenzy more often surrounds pretty white girls. Why is that? And finally, where do the cameras really belong and not belong? Now that we have watched people become media figures by fully humiliating themselves on witness stands coast to coast, what’s next? Cameras in the death chamber? How much is too much and who will decide? Lots of questions…very few answers. Stay tuned, and remember – Just because Dr. Drew says of the Anthony jury, "It almost becomes a Stockholm syndrome where you develop a relationship at a distance with the person who is accused of committing the crime," doesn’t necessarily mean he knows anything more than you or I know. He just has the microphone and we don’t.

2 comments:

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