Spin Cycle

07.05.11

The Media’s Casey Anthony Shame

Her lawyer was right to denounce the coverage, but it’s worse than he says

Casey Anthony’s lawyer was half-right in complaining about “media assassination” soon after she was acquitted of murder and manslaughter.

Cheney Mason said Tuesday that he hoped “incompetent talking heads…talking about cases they don’t know a damned thing about” had learned a lesson from the surprise verdict.

Lots of legal loudmouths in our Judge Judy culture convicted Anthony of killing her 2-year-old daughter. The Nancy Graces of the world are more interested in vociferous opinions--in her case, siding with prosecutors in almost every case--than in dispassionately weighing the evidence.

But many of them failed to make the crucial distinction between when someone seems guilty as hell and whether prosecutors have proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt--especially in a death penalty trial. Jurors are usually cautious in a circumstantial case, as was clear from the quickie nature of their verdict.

Where Mason went too far is in railing against “ talking heads,” even leaving aside that they enjoy freedom of speech. Most journalists reported fairly on the avalanche of evidence against Anthony—what ordinary mom does an Web search for “chloroform,” even if her mother claimed responsibility?--and that accounted for much of the coverage that painted her in an exceedingly negative light.

Every American, and every camera-hogging legal pundit, is entitled to an opinion about the case. There are no rules of evidence in the court of public opinion. But no one should think they’re getting a legal seminar that will help predict the outcome. Juries operate under their own logic, as well as a judge’s instructions.

What television news was guilty of was massive overkill. There was absolutely no reason for the TV business to turn the death of 2-year-old Caylee into a national soap opera—that is, short of milking the story for ratings. (Newspapers and magazines have largely stayed off this bandwagon.)

Sadly, many children are killed by parents in the United States each year, and most barely merit a short story in the local paper. If they’re African-American, they are barely on the radar. Casey Anthony is white, middle-class and attractive—the trifecta for producers and bookers.

Such trials are the spawn of O.J., whose murder case dominated the media in the mid-1990s. But Simpson was a world-famous athlete. Chandra Levy at least worked for a member of Congress. Since then, television news has tried to fill the void by taking unknown victims and defendants—Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway—and turning them into cause celebres so that viewers would develop a rooting interest in the players and the subplots.

I find it sickening, which is why I’ve largely avoided writing or talking about the Anthony case until now. Like many of those who even casually followed the story, I thought she was probably guilty. But I never understood why I should care about this murder above so many others. Let’s be honest with ourselves: this is the exploitation of tragedy until it becomes entertainment. And that’s why the situation is even worse than the indictment by Anthony’s lawyer would suggest.