I am rarely accurate with prognostications or predictions but I am feeling pretty confident about two things: 1) there will be another high-profile trial in the not too distant future, like Casey Anthony’s, that will capture the attention of the nation and the media; and 2) it will be followed by the hand-wringing and utter despair about the future of media that trail every high-profile case. In fact, there is no surer way to be the belle of your media critic’s ball than to blast the Casey Anthony media coverage. From hackneyed assertions that “it’s not journalism,” to characterizations of it as “merchandising in tragedy,", to the populist position that it’s “just entertainment,” the Anthony coverage, like so many trials before it, serves as the ultimate media scapegoat.
Despite the fact that I covered the story as much as almost anyone (well no, since I do not work for HLN), I’m not going to defend the amount of coverage, nor claim that the future of the Republic somehow rests on the shoulders of the trial of a 20-something year-old accused and now acquitted, child killer. Yes, high-profile trials can be riveting and I believe they do lead to a better understanding of our third branch of government, but there’s no question they are covered at the expense of far more important issues like the economy, Libya, the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, etc.
No, this case, and the spectacle trials before it, are the sorts of stories many are too sheepish to admit they are closely following, much less actively covering. HLN saw huge ratings increases, but they won’t be seeing any industry accolades for that coverage. In fact, HLN and star host Nancy Grace have now become piñatas for “real” (a.k.a capital J) journalists, and those attempting to ingratiate themselves with the folks who take the proverbial bat to trial coverage.
As for Nancy Grace, she and I went head to head for almost six weeks every morning on Good Morning America. I agreed with her some of the time, and disagreed with her at least as often. Did I think her reference to Casey Anthony as “tot mom” was silly? Sure. But Nancy was honest about her position on the case and while she can be over the top, her take was based in the facts as she saw them. That transparency allows viewers to decide if they believe she is responding like a mother or a “monster."
But there is a far bigger problem here. Many of the most outspoken critics (amateur and professional) of the Anthony coverage are the very same people who relish intensive political coverage. They spend hours upon hours on discussion and analysis of who is up or down -- who is running or who is not, and who made the most egregious gaffe that day. Yet the horse-race political coverage and gotcha moments that define most of today’s political coverage are not just equally insignificant as news events, they are far more insidious.