The boundaries between illusion and reality, journalism and advocacy, fair trial and free press, all seemed elusive as they were battered by conflicting waves of rage in the wake of Casey Anthony's acquittal on the charge of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee.
MIAMI — Geraldo Rivera’s television life has been full of strange moments, from on-the-air sex-change surgeries to fistfights with Nazis. But even Rivera was dumbstruck for a moment when, during man-on-the-street interviews about the Casey Anthony verdict, a woman excitedly chirped to his cameras: “This is better than ‘Jersey Shore!'”
“How bizarre is that?” the Fox News correspondent exclaimed Wednesday. “Confusing reality with a reality show? But you can’t make it into something cosmic. To inflate it to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, I don’t buy that.”
But the boundaries between illusion and reality, journalism and advocacy, fair trial and free press, all seemed elusive as they were battered by conflicting waves of rage in the wake of Anthony’s acquittal on the charge of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee.
As talk shows, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages erupted with rants against a verdict that many Americans considered shockingly wrong — Twitter comments denouncing the jury outnumbered those praising it by 64 to 1, according to the digital bean-counting company NM Incite — a countervailing wave of complaints that media coverage distorted the trial also took hold.
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Anthony is to be sentenced Thursday on four misdemeanor convictions for lying to police, which likely will only feed the growing storm of media criticism.
It came most intensely, and least surprisingly, from Anthony’s defense team.
“I hope this is a lesson to those of you having indulged in media assassination for three years,” defense attorney J. Cheney Mason lectured reporters shortly after the verdict came in Tuesday. Many critics said that some television news shows built their ratings up by taking an openly prosecutorial stance against Anthony, leading to public expectations that a conviction was a slam-dunk certainty.
“The way TV has handled this is an embarrassment,” said Howard Kurtz, host of CNN’s media-criticism show “Reliable Sources.” “The sheer volume of coverage for stories that are basically local tragedies is impossible to defend. Toss in a tone of sensationalism, legal pundits who want to be the next Judge Judy, and a rush to judgment that belies the inevitable nuances of a criminal case, and you have the Casey Anthony story. She was convicted on the air long before the courtroom jury took a vote.”
The most pointed criticism was aimed at HLN’s Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor whose nightly attacks on the woman she scornfully referred to as Tot Mom almost single-handedly inflated the Anthony case from a routine local murder into a national obsession. Grace made no attempt to hide her rage at Anthony’s acquittal. “Tot Mom’s lies seem to have worked,” she exclaimed moments after the jury announced its verdict. “The devil is dancing tonight.”
“Caylee, her 2-year-old little girl, found just 15 houses from where Tot Mom puts her head on the pillow every night; her body decomposed — nothing but a skeleton gnawed on by animals, disarranged there in a trash dump that used to serve as a pet cemetery. Little Caylee — thrown away like she was trash,” Grace said.
Grace’s campaign against Anthony made her network (owned by CNN and formerly known as Headline News) the go-to spot for trial addicts. Nearly 4.6 million viewers, the most in the network’s three-decade history, tuned in to watch the verdict Wednesday.
CNN reporter Jeffrey Toobin, a former prosecutor who often joined the network’s panel discussions of the Anthony case, believes that television should cover trials more, not less, as a sort of running civics lesson. In any event, cautioned former Miami federal Prosecutor Kendall Coffey, it’s nothing new for Americans to treat murder trials as entertainment.
“We’ve had many ‘trials of the century’ throughout history, and they started long before cable news or reality TV or TV, period,” said Coffey, whose 2010 book, “Spinning The Law: Trying Cases In The Court of Public Opinion,” traced the history of high-profile court cases.
“There was no more media-obsessed trial in American history than the one for the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapper in the 1930s. And later (in the 1950s) you had the murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard in Ohio, which attracted so much publicity that the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the conviction. This is not some kind of modern phenomenon.”