Did continuous negative media coverage of Casey Anthony actually help her get acquitted?
Casey Anthony may have been acquitted Tuesday on all the murder charges related to the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, but there was one institution that got stuck with a guilty verdict.
The news media.
“I hope this is a lesson to those of you having indulged in media assassination for three years,” thundered defense attorney Cheney Mason in a statement to reporters after the verdict (Anthony’s lawyers took no questions from journalists). Mason also criticized attorneys for speculating wildly during such stories, blasting lawyers “getting on television and talking about cases they don’t know a damn thing about.”
Later, CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin would suggest Mason was sniping at HLN personality Nancy Grace, a pundit whose antipathy toward Anthony was so intense she often referred to her only as “tot mom” in broadcasts, leaving little doubt how she felt on the question of her guilt. Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly sounded a similar note Tuesday, getting into a heated argument with Geraldo Rivera, who had landed an interview with Casey Anthony's attorney Jose Baez, over whether Anthony was a good mother.
This was the level media reporting had sunk to by the day's end.
The trial has been a huge boost for some media outlets; The Orlando Sentinel reported HLN ratings have risen 85 percent from June 2010 due to Grace’s success from Anthony coverage and every local TV station but WFLA-Ch. 8 carried live coverage of the verdict at 2:15 p.m. CNN said more than 1 million people watched its live stream video of the verdict online at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
But Diane Dimond, a longtime TV and print journalist who has reported on the Anthony case for the Daily Beast website and has appeared on Grace’s HLN show, had a surprising reaction to Mason’s critique. She agreed with him – somewhat.
“Cheney Mason was taking a slap at both his own colleagues and the media and I think he’s got a point,” said Dimond, who was scheduled to appear on Grace’s show Tuesday. “But Nancy (Grace) is an attorney, not a journalist, and network executives should label these shows and people on them more properly.”
Grace seemed to double down on her comments about Anthony after the verdict Tuesday, telling viewers that “the Tot Mom’s lies seemed to have worked.”
Media critics have complained about these oversteps and about saturation coverage delivered, in part, because she is attractive, looked middle class and so was her daughter. An audience trained to see trials as real life soap operas by Dateline NBC and “reality TV” shows had their ultimate showcase in these proceedings.
But if, Dimond said, people think media coverage might swing verdicts against defendants, the Anthony trial may prove the reverse – along with O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake. “I sat through jury selection,” she said. “I was stunned by how many people in Florida said ‘I don’t like the media. I watch the news to see the weather.’”
Instead, the real lesson could be that intense media coverage gives defendants enough celebrity profile and resources that it is tougher for juries to convict them of serious crimes.
Another concern: watching TV reporters such as HLN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell standing outside the Orange County courtroom, channeling the anger of bystanders and criticizing the verdict. Such emotional displays, also echoed by pundits such as O'Reilly, whip up crowd passions without explaining why a jury could reach such a verdict, or explaining the difference between "not guilty" and "innocent."
With few close to the case talking to the media right now, another question surfaces: How much could jurors, Casey Anthony’s relatives or the acquitted women herself earn by selling their stories to the news media, book publishers and film or TV producers?
Larry Garrison represented Anthony’s parents as a spokesman for several months in 2008 until they accused him of accepting $6,500 from NBC to license photos without telling them (a charge he has denied). Still, he hopes to make a movie about the family based on what he saw.
And as a producer who often unites the subjects of tabloid news stories with news outlets, Garrison said a tabloid or interested outlet might pay $500,000 to $1-million for exclusive access to Casey Anthony’s story.
Producers like Garrison can become a method to help news outlets avoid charges of paying for stories. By paying the broker, organizations can accurately claim they have not paid the news source, regardless of what the middleman does next with the money.
During the trial, the public discovered that traditional news outlets such as ABC News paid anywhere from $15,000 to $200,000 for video and pictures of people connected to the case – money widely construed as payment for exclusive interview access.
Glenn Selig, a Tampa-based TV reporter-turned public relations professional, also briefly advised Casey Anthony’s attorney and helped former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich develop his media opportunities. He said the jurors in the Anthony trial might have the most valuable story, particularly if they negotiate together like the rescued Chilean miners.
Here is where Casey Anthony's awful public image may hurt her worst, Selig said.
“The biggest money comes from the entertainment world; book and film deals,” said Selig. “I don’t know how much the public will support (a movie or book from Casey Anthony) if they think she is guilty.”