Tuesday, July 12, 2011

NANCY GRACE: JUDGE, JURY & EXECUTIONER

While reciting my daily “all hail the digital communication revolution,” I can’t help wondering how we might work out some of the quirks. Early on, one of them was named Martin Downey, Jr., a bombastic, chain smoking talk show host who liked to call women pigs, who once beat up a gay guest on his show and who thought nothing of getting in to verbally abusive screaming matches with audience members who disagreed with him. He opened doors for people like Jerry Springer. We media consumers knew all along that personalities of this ilk were really just entertainers. The problem these days has more to do with broadcasters who take themselves very seriously and who somehow engender the respect and loyalty of big audience segments. Think Nancy Grace.

Grace, a former prosecuting attorney whose focus is victims’ rights, came into the public consciousness as a commentator for Court TV, but really emerged in TV as a frequent guest on CNN’s Larry King show. These days, she hosts her own show on HLN. A onetime English major, Grace changed her major to law after her fiancée was murdered when she was just 19 years old. Sounds impressive, huh? Well, some things look so much better on paper than they do in real life.

Nancy Grace, it appears, has a problem with boundaries – in law, on television and in conversation. Grace’s bully pulpit is her nightly HLN show, where she makes no attempt to hide her feelings about the court cases she covers. In 2006, Grace interviewed Melinda Duckett (left), the mother of a two-year-old child who was reported missing. The interview was brutal. Grace stopped just short of accusing Duckett of murder, but her questioning was relentless and highly accusatory in tone. The next morning Duckett shot herself in the head. Her family filed a wrongful death suit against Grace and CNN (parent company of HLN). The case was later settled out of court. For her part, Grace was unapologetic about her treatment of Duckett, telling ABC news, “"If anything, I would suggest that guilt made Melinda Duckett commit suicide." At the time of her suicide, there was no real evidence to suggest Duckett had harmed or killed her child.

That same year a young woman accused three Duke University lacrosse players of raping her at a party. Grace took the case on as her case of the moment and at one point stated, “I’m so glad they didn’t miss a lacrosse game over a little thing like a gang rape.” After some intense courtroom drama and a protracted trial, all charges were dropped against the three male students and it was revealed the young woman had lied. Somehow, Nancy Grace had rushed to the judgment that the young woman was a victim. She was not.

These instances are more the rule than the exception in Grace’s television career. It makes for compelling TV, and it certainly amasses HLN some unprecedented ratings. During the recent Casey Anthony child murder trial, Grace’s ratings increased steadily throughout. By July 5, when the not guilty verdict was read, Grace delivered the highest ratings in HLN’s 29-year history. Anthony, who Grace inexplicably nicknamed “Tot Mom” throughout her coverage of the trial, was found guilty by Grace way before she was found not guilty by the judicial system. Here is a typical segment of Grace’s show during the Anthony trial:

Grace’s over-the-top, judgmental coverage of this trial has firmly secured her position in broadcasting as a rogue anti-journalist whose apparent motive is indeed viewership, rather than victims’ rights. Broadcasters from all corners of the television industry have roundly criticized her approach to this case. On a recent Bill O’Reilly show, she defended herself this way:

So, why is any of this relevant? Simply because the average media consumer does not necessarily distinguish between, say, Brian Williams and Nancy Grace, or Christine Amanpour and Nancy Grace. Those whose faces are nicely framed on camera and whose words are delivered to millions of viewers/listeners are all looked upon as in the know about whatever it is they talk about. That Grace is trained as a lawyer and Diane Sawyer is trained as a journalist has little or no impact on the media consumer. In the eyes of many viewers there is little difference in the credibility of entertainer Glen Beck and reporter Wolf Blitzer. They are both on television, they’re both delivering information and each is widely known. Therein lies the danger. We consumers would not trust our legal troubles to a reporter, but somehow many people trust a lawyer to function as a reporter.

What the digital communication revolution has wrought is Nancy Grace, an angry, judgmental, sometimes ill-informed attorney who often speaks out of turn and before she thinks through what she has to say. She presents herself as a person who has answers, rather than a person who asks intelligent, appropriate questions of those who might truly have answers. She uses the guests on her show to either validate her pre-conceived opinions, or as whipping posts for her disdain of those she judges. Through it all, Grace, who purports to revere the American judicial system, trivializes it by making exaggerated claims that enrage the public, and by pre-judging defendants on television, rather than allowing the court to do its job. It is similar to what she did as a prosecuting attorney. The record shows twice in the 1990s she was called out by the Georgia Supreme Court for prosecutorial misconduct. The first time the Court called her behavior "inexcusable." The next time the Court said she showed "a disregard for due process and fairness."

As a journalist, I can’t say I’ve seen a more dangerous time in the industry. Individuals like Grace, who do not know how to present information and allow interview subjects to move a story along, are altering the system in a way that makes them the focus, rather than the story itself. And as all good journalists know, once the reporter becomes the story, the value of his or her reporting is nullified. Once the conveyer of information (on television, in print or online) shapes the national conversation, rather than simply facilitating it, the public dialogue is irreversibly sullied. And that is exactly what Nancy Grace does, every night, in prime time, on HLN. Grace clearly does not understand the negative impact she now has on broadcasting, and on those victims she so vehemently wants to support and defend. Sadly, those victims will be the biggest losers of all, inextricably lost in the shuffle of bad information, biased reporting and a TV show that values big numbers over true justice.

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