Amid TV's mad dash to uncover Casey Anthony jurors in Pinellas County, public backlash is biggest obstacle
For Fox News Greta Van Susteren, the interview came by chance and a fateful recommendation.
The jury foreman in the Casey Anthony murder trial had decided to speak to the media. But he also wanted to speak with an on camera person who was a lawyer, and HLN personality Nancy Grace -- a former prosecutor who has called the jury "kooky" and their verdict a "miscarriage of justice" -- was clearly out.
So Van Susteren, armed with a recommendation from a friend, got Juror #11 to speak for her show On the Record, after agreeing to keep his identity off the record, filmed at The Vinoy hotel on a balcony overlooking The Pier in St. Petersburg.
And even though TV producers have been scrambling for days in Pinellas County, working hard to secure interviews with jurors on the widely-covered murder trial whose identities have been kept from the public by the court, Van Susteren said their names were hardly unknown to the army of bookers trying to land the next big exclusive for network morning and cable news shows.
"Every single juror has a friend or relative and co-worker who knows they served on the jury and they're talking," said the host, who said she wasn't even aware the jurors' names were kept from the public until Monday. "Everybody in media here knows who they are. Sometimes we're tripping over each other at these people's homes, because everybody knows."
Everybody but the general public, which has reacted badly to the jury's not guilty finding for Anthony, a young mother who waited a month to report her 2-year-old daughter Caylee was missing and lied to police once her absence was known. Public backlash against the not guilty verdict has been so intense that the trial judge cited death threats as motivation for keeping jurors names secret for a "cooling off period," which could end Wednesday.
Van Susteren said juror #11 wanted his identity kept secret -- the show filmed him from behind talking to the host -- because he "just wanted to go back to doing his job" with no problems after serving on the trial.
"I really thought George had very selective memory," the juror told Van Susteren in an interview aired Monday night, which delved deeply into talk about forensic details and the credibility of Casey Anthony's father. "Every time he got up there, I was kinda on guard for that...it raised questions...He could be possibly lying."
NBC reporter Kerry Sanders offered a poignant report on juror #12, a sixtysomething woman who retired from her job bagging groceries at Publix by phone and moved out of state after the trial for fear of what might happen when her name was revealed to the public. "I'd rather go to jail than sit on a jury like this again," she reportedly told her husband before leaving the state.
The St. Petersburg Times reported on a man who faced vilification online after the website TheDirty.com mistakenly reported he was a juror on the Anthony trial, as his name circulated online. He didn't realize what had happened until a booker from Good Morning America called for an interview.
The intense public backlash over the verdict is complicating an already complex dance among those seeking to get stories from jurors about their experience. Initially, pundits feared the jurors might demand compensation, given that TV networks had already paid hundred of thousands of dollars to Anthony herself and others connected to the case.
But now it seems jurors biggest concern is their personal safety, as concerns expressed by the court surface in bruising online messages and harsh commentary from pundits such as Grace. The dynamic adds an extra concern for journalists seeking to report on the jurors' stories without subjecting them to undue personal risk (the St. Petersburg Times, for instance, agreed not to name juror #2 in a story, though it has filed a motion in court to have all jurors' names revealed).
How do journalists serve the public's right to know -- and their own thirst for a juicy story -- without putting all the jurors at risk?
"They thought they were doing a big public service," said Van Susteren of the jurors, noting that the foreman took 400 pages of notes during the trial. "Now, they get out (of sequestration) after the verdict and find out everyone hates them."
Tampa TV reporter-turned-public relations professional Glenn Selig offered to help any juror navigate the crush of journalists seeking comment -- as long as they did not seek compensation for their stories. But no one took him up on the offer, beside a stream of journalists asking if anyone agreed to use his services. Selig's biggest problem: letting the jury know his offer was on the table when their names weren't public.
Van Susteren resisted criticism leveled by some that national media shouldn't have spent so much time, money and energy covering the case in the first place, instead condemning "irresponsible" and "hysterical" coverage without specifically singling out HLN star Grace.
"Well, I know this butters my bread, but I think it's a good idea that people learn about trials through media coverage," said the host, who made her broadcast career as a commentator on the O.J. Simpson trial. "But sometimes loud equal big ratings."