Casey Anthony Coverage: Less Dangerous Than Political Reporting

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.

When the political media spends days upon days covering and analyzing President Obama’s birth certificate, Sarah Palin‘s reference to Paul Revere, wall to wall coverage of Donald Trump‘s fake Presidential run (I’ll even exclude Weiner coverage for now), and every other misstep, poor choice of words, and invented scandal, they are not just wasting precious media time, they are also forcing our political leaders to define candidacies based on largely irrelevant media moments. Even though Casey Anthony did not receive the sort of justice most believe she deserved, at least the public walked away with some understanding of why the system works the way it does. Can we say the same for the public’s takeaway from intensive coverage of political gaffes? I can explain the legal concept of reasonable doubt but it’s harder to explain unreasonable doubts about political leaders that result from often inane media coverage.

Don’t get me wrong, this site traffics in these gotcha moments along with the best of them. Mediaite covers the media so what they cover is what is covered here. As Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher once said, blaming Mediaite for covering these stories is like “criticiz(ing) the ground for being wet because it’s raining.”

But I also have not seen editors here take a self-righteous position about the perils of the Casey Anthony coverage. For many media critics it’s just naked hypocrisy to laud political shows that cover politics (and little to no policy), and then take the stage front and center to lead the anti-media Anthony crusade. Many of them would, I am sure, claim that they do criticize the media’s political coverage as well. But it just never seems to have that same frantic tone as do their critiques of more innocuous high profile trials.

In the end, the media does cater to the desires of its audience. After all, most media is a business and the news media in particular must balance that ratings tug with the need to stay focused on the stories that should matter. The Casey Anthony coverage is an easy target but the journalistic stone throwers should have far more important targets to hit.

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