The move of the Casey Anthony murder trial from the legal confines of a Florida court to the unrestrictive court of public opinion is a good opportunity to examine the way many media colleagues cashed in on the tragic death of a two-year-old girl.
I confess to an addiction to news and information. As with all junkies, I run the risk of falling in with enablers and dealers who are more than willing to feed my jones, even to the point of overdose.
The media pushers have a sick tool to measure precisely which stories hook the average news junkie into shuffling back for another fix. It’s called ratings, those evil-but-oh-so-necessary numbers that show how effectively news executives exploit someone else’s misery. As in (which my older colleagues will appreciate): “If it bleeds, it leads.”
The fact that ratings play a huge role in what stories broadcasters cover and how they do it is not new, and it’s not confined to the electronic media. Print executives look for stories that will increase their circulations; so do online publishers wanting more page views. Revenue generation is the nature of the beast. In the death of Caylee Anthony, media executives found plenty of ways to feed the beast while satisfying the public’s hunger for the next easy fix.
Coverage of the Casey Anthony trial caught the public’s attention for good reason: a toddler disappears; the mother parties while volunteers search; a dysfunctional family becomes a national obsession. This was real reality TV, but with an awful twist.
The media rush to pump up revenues based on the public’s constant craving for the lowest form of journalism gave a price to the value of a human life. Other murders with less public appeal didn’t deserve the center ring under the media circus tent.
For example, the seemingly ceaseless coverage of Casey Anthony successfully diverted the public’s attention from a true Hollywood murder trial going on at the same time in the same Orange County Courthouse. That’s where a jury last month convicted Amanda Brumfield, the 32-year-old daughter of actor Billy Bob Thornton, of the aggravated manslaughter of her best friend’s 1-year-old daughter while in her care in 2008. Prosecutors said Brumfield caused a three-and-a-half inch fracture to the back of the girl’s skull and waited more than two hours before calling police.
Coincidentally, those jurors also acquitted her of first-degree murder and aggravated child-abuse charges. One would think those high-paid journalists and legal experts would have seen that outcome and pondered its possibility in the Anthony trial. Then, again, maybe the details surrounding the life and crime of a woman estranged from her famous actor/father were not lurid enough to compete for the public’s affections.
But that doesn’t explain why we didn’t see extensive coverage of the Waterloo, Ill., father, husband, and former pastor on trial for the murders of his wife and two sons, ages 9 and 11, a case that involved a television ministry and claims of adultery with a Florida cocktail waitress. I mean, come on, how much more tawdry do you want? While cable news executives lined up talent for the Anthony trial, jurors in May convicted Chris Coleman for the strangling deaths of his family.
Bob Frapples, a regular down at Sparky’s Diner, complained frequently about the “screamin’ and hollerin’” from the people covering the trial. “They’re so catty and nasty that sometimes I think I’m watching those ugly women and pretty boys on the Fashion Police,” he said before the verdict. We politely did not ask him why or how he knew such things.
State Attorney Lawson Lamar was more blunt during his post-verdict news conference. “Some have exploited the case for personal gain, ad revenues, or 15 minutes of fame,” he said. Indeed.
I fully appreciate the challenges of murder trials, having covered many from crime to punishment and from watching my wife suffer as the wheels of the justice system grind ever-so slowly during the past three decades for the man convicted twice for murdering her sister.
In my younger days, I didn’t appreciate why I couldn’t bring my tape recorder or my photographer into a courthouse, much less the courtroom. Recorders and cameras were the tools of my trade; banning them, I and other broadcast journalists argued, reduced our ability to compete with our print colleagues and, therefore, did not serve the public’s right to know.
Now, only five states (Illinois, Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, and Utah) and the District of Columbia prohibit TV cameras in trial courts. The others leave the question up to the judge’s discretion.
Back when we relied on our eyes, ears, pen, and paper to tell the story, we had to be precise in what we wrote. Facts took precedence over histrionics. Now, it seems, media-sponsored bullying is the norm, complete with “screamin’ and hollerin’” and name calling befitting mean drunks at the local bar.
Caylee Anthony, and by extension you and I, deserve thoughtful and civil discourse regarding what arguably may be our most important constitutional right, something that separates us from despots and terrorists.