As Casey Anthony jury deliberates, some lessons for news media
It felt like Super Bowl Sunday on CNN's HLN channel this past July 3, as an array of nine experts lined up to explain the closing arguments in the Casey Anthony murder trial.
Anchor Vinnie Politan wouldn't have been out of place in Fox's NFL booth, recapping the prosecution's closing arguments with the zeal of John Madden tearing apart a New York Giants down. There were video clips, outlandish assumptions and even host Jane Velez-Mitchell getting cut off by commercials every time she tried to offer time-consuming analysis.
There was everything, in fact, except a sense of decorum or perspective.
You'd never know a young mother's life was hanging in the balance. Or that a jury was on the verge of meting out punishment for the horrific death of a 2-year-old child. Somewhere in the mix of play-by-play analysis about strategy and possible outcomes, a few important truths got lost. (Click here for a gander at Politan's "open mic moment" during the trial.)
The Anthony trial became serious daytime programming over this long holiday weekend, as MSNBC, truTV and HLN offered continuous coverage of the closing arguments in the case. At times, it felt as if you were watching a real-life soap opera, as defense attorney Jose Baez attacked a smirking prosecutor in his own concluding speech, prompting the judge to once again consider penalizing both lawyers on contempt of court charges.
Indeed, this was a prosecution made for today's reality TV-bred information culture, from a beautiful defendant and victim, to a supremely dysfunctional family, dramatically bombastic defense attorney and proceedings on camera for all media to savor. No wonder someone created an app for this; thanks to acres of newsmagazines and reality shows, the Anthony trial now feels like one long webisode unspooled for the world's entertainment.
The BBC interviewed me last week about the case, which has consumed media in Orlando and across the cable dial. Even as HLN and Nancy Grace have capitalized on the interest to double their ratings, I still think the trial is commanding a broad niche of viewers.
It's not quite massive enough to take over the airwaves in the way the O.J. Simpson trial did -- except during a slow news week like the July 4th weekend. But it is big enough to prompt news organizations to spend hundreds of thousands to acquire interviews -- excuse me, video and pictures -- along with prime time specials and continuous coverage on select cable channels.
Time to consider the ethics of coverage -- Even as HLN scores serious numbers, it's flagship personality, Nancy Grace, makes no secret of where her passions lie in this case, referring to Anthony dismissively as "Tot Mom" and uncorking "revelations" like a body language expert who said she called her father a son of a bitch in court. Is it ethical for a CNN channel to have its coverage led by a pundit who seems so convinced of the defendant's guilt? And whose coverage was so pointed, it came up during jury selection?
Time to consider the "beauty dividend": As a friend and behavioral expert told me recently, humans naturally pay more attention to people we consider attractive -- a dynamic he called the "beauty dividend." But the level of coverage given the Casey Anthony trial once again forces us to consider how many similar trials go unnoticed. Maybe the mom is unattractive, the perpetrator is the father, the child is not cute -- regardless, at a time when 14,000 people are killed every year, why are our highest-profile media reports only filled with stories about good-looking, middle-class seeming, Caucasian victims and perpetrators?
Time for news outlets to admit paying for interviews -- As I noted last week, too many established news outlets have paid too much money to people at the heart of this case, supposedly for access to video and pictures. But even some of the people who got the money admit the real purpose was to secure their exclusive cooperation with stories.
Time for news outlets to get some perspective -- As usual, there have been too many people with too many empty-headed observations. The next time somebody notes that juror isn't taking notes or seems to be zoning out, I will sentence them to two hours in a room listening top Baez with no bathroom breaks or inattention allowed.
Time for news outlets to cover how they affect trials -- In the endless hours of speculation on this trial, the one thing TV outlets haven't discussed much is the effect their own money may have had on the proceedings. Casey Anthony got $200,000 from ABC News which helped fund her defense; both prosecution and defense attorneys have tried using payments given to people involved in the case to skewer their credibility with the jury. Given how much time is devoted to this trial on air, it's hypocritical to avoid serious discussion on the effect such payments may have on the stories witnesses are telling and testimony given at the trial itself.