Saturday, September 09, 2006

Musings on the Media

Well, we’re just through the primaries and it’s all election news all the time, so politics Florida-style are on top in my mind. The Orlando Sentinel’s Scott Maxwell postulated in his September 7 column that the huge discrepancy between Katherine Harris’ poll numbers and the large number of votes she actually received was due to “cocktail party shame,” in which voters who would not admit to supporting her in public felt free to vote for her in the privacy of the booth.

I think there might well be another reason. I think that it was quite possibly an anti-media backlash and, as such, a sign of the public’s growing and ongoing distrust of the media. Man, I practically shudder as I write this. Me on the side of Spiro Agnew and the media bashers? But let’s face it, these are different times and a different media than ole Spiro once bashed. These are the days of Fox News being accepted, unblinkingly, by many as a source of unbiased news.

Back to Katherine. First, let me say that I don’t mean to imply that I think the media either unfairly targeted Ms. Harris or distorted what she said or did. Her primary campaign had the kind of horrifying fascination that a nature documentary on spiders holds for me as a confirmed arachnophobe. One just couldn’t look away. My personal conclusion, after all of the discourse, was that Katherine Harris had, at best, only a nodding acquaintance with the truth and, at worst, only a nodding acquaintance with reality. In either case, it makes her a somewhat scary choice for a continuing career as an elected official.

The more than 49% of Republican voters who cast a ballot for Harris clearly thought otherwise. Now how could that be? Either they did not read all those same scary stories I did or, and this is what I conclude, THEY DID NOT BELIEVE THEM. That is a serious message for the state’s media to hear. Because we are not talking about voters ignoring heavily partisan, shrill negative campaign ads. We are talking about voters ignoring and rejecting fact-based news stories reporting things that Katherine Harris said and did.

Is this totally surprising in a world in which we are bombarded by bizarre speculation on whether Suri Cruise exists if no paparazzi have taken her photo? (A 21st century version of the old existential question about the tree falling in the forest, perhaps?) When what Paris Hilton, the woman famous for absolutely nothing, does is “news?” When the line between news and entertainment, between fact and speculation, has become so blurry that the average person could not be blamed for tossing the whole mess into the codswallop file and forgetting about it except as a meaningless time killer?

I think her Nancyness Grace tripped less than charmingly over that line this week. Nancy, who has already demonstrated a strain of chutzpah that, if bottled, could well make our fighting men stronger, was already on my mind after I caught part of her act on Monday.

While mercilessly flogging the Boulder, Colorado DA over the arrest of that sad specimen of humanity, John Mark Karr (And aren’t we all positive that if wind of Karr’s alleged emails had hit the media and he was NOT arrested immediately, Nancy and her ilk would have been flogging just as hard the other direction?), Nancy had no problem filling her show night after night with endless speculation and attacks on various hapless people she brought on to “discuss” it ad nauseum, while a parade of background JonBenet still photos played. But, alas, the gravy train petered out when Karr was released and allowed to sink back into the mire of anonymity the rest of us inhabit. What’s a crime junkie to do?

Aside to O.J.: Forget the murders, sad and horrible as they were, your biggest crime was foisting an exponential new level of true crime media on our culture.

So, what IS a crime junkie to do? Why, just what her Nancyness did. Run an entire one-hour retrospective of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case! And here’s where we get to the chutzpah part. As she was wrapping up the show, Nancy Grace, queen of the intrusive, insensitive, unnuanced, speculation-on-little-or-no-fact-based-true crime journalism asked a guest, in total seriousness, if he thought the media had caused problems in the Ramsey murder investigation. Huh? Self-reflection is probably not high on her To Do list.

But wait, that is not even the line crossing to which I refer. Back to the news in Florida. What I want to know is: Does Nancy Grace have any problem facing herself in the mirror after she browbeat—through relentless interrogation (we know how Nancy likes to show us her old prosecutor chops)—Melinda Duckett, a young woman of 21 who was a community college student holding down two jobs, who had just gone through a difficult, hostile divorce, and whose two-year-old son had been missing since August 27th? Can Nancy be comfortable with what she did during her Thursday taping in the face of that young woman’s suicide the very next day? (Probably, since she aired the footage on her show the same night Melinda died.) If, by some miracle, that little boy is found safe, will Nancy Grace feel good about the prospect of him living the rest of his life without his mother? And if, as I suspect, his mother had nothing whatsoever to do with his disappearance, will Nancy wonder aloud if the media had a part in the problems of the investigation? Nancy, were no lessons learned from the Ramsey case? I ask you, and I ask your colleagues in Florida. Poor Melinda Duckett, like Richard Jewell before her, may have had her life destroyed by an event she was caught up in through no fault of her own. I don’t know that yet.

But I do believe that there is enough evidence for one conclusion. Evidence from the Richard Jewell case, from the Ramsey case, from the Wen Ho Lee case, etc., makes it clear that hysterical media speculation without waiting for the investigative and judicial processes to unfold not only does not benefit the public good, it harms individuals and, more critical for us as a society, it harms the very credibility of the media. So, when the same Chicken Littles that told us Richard Jewell was a bomber, that told us the Ramseys must have murdered their child, that crafted language to make Melinda Duckett’s every action sound suspicious (My personal favorite: The neighbors say they did not see Trenton playing outside very often. Hello? He was two, it’s Florida in the summer, it’s been in the 90s for months—no one lets their babies play outside in it!), when those same media sources say that Katherine Harris is guilty of this or said that, who can blame the Floridians who voted for her for not believing them?

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