April 21, 2024

The Media Equation: TV Justice Thrives on Fear

Well, there’s always Nancy Grace.

Every night on HLN, CNN’s supposedly softer side, Ms. Grace sprays lightning bolts in all directions — at her guests, the law, and most often, the accused. Since her show began in 2005, the presumption of innocence has found a willful enemy in the former prosecutor turned broadcast judge-and-jury.

Shows like “Nancy Grace” and “America’s Most Wanted” — along with “Cops,” and all the prison reality shows and Court TV re-enacts — may serve as a window on crime, but the fundamental appeal is more primal. Crime shows are the adult version of the scary stories we were told as children, the ones about the unseen Gollum who sweeps out of nowhere and devours the lives of unsuspecting people.

I have no issue with true crime, as long as it is true. Ms. Grace, a former prosecutor in Atlanta who was reprimanded for stepping over a line more than once, obliterates lines every night on “Nancy Grace.” Working with a contingent of experts who have all the independence of a crew of trained seals, Ms. Grace races toward judgment, heedlessly ignoring nuance and evidence on her way to finding guilt.

Ms. Grace knows what she knows with a great deal of certainty, but she was wrong about the now debunked rape charges against the Duke lacrosse team, she was wrong about who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart. She taped a corrosive interview in 2006 with Melinda Duckett, whose 2-year-old son had gone missing, and Ms. Duckett killed herself the next day. Ms. Grace broadcast the interview anyway.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington and a frequent television talking head on legal matters, says she practices a hybrid of journalism and law that manages to be neither.

“I think she has managed to demean both professions with her hype, rabid persona, and sensational analysis,” Professor Turley said. “Some part of the public takes her seriously, and her show erodes the respect for basic rights.”

She has her fans. Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is upset about the apparent passing of “America’s Most Wanted” and sees Ms. Grace as one of the last people standing up for victims.

“What Nancy Grace does so well is tell the story from the perspective of the victims,” he said. “Her show is a way for the broad dissemination of information about the victims of crime.”

Like Mr. Walsh and Dominick Dunne, Ms. Grace came by her victimhood honestly when her fiancé, Keith Griffin, was killed when she was just 19. In her book “Objection,” Ms. Grace suggested that a stranger with a criminal record shot Mr. Griffin outside a convenience store, was arrested and denied any involvement. By her recollection, she had to sit through three days of agonizing deliberation and then the prosecutor asked her if the defendant should be given the death penalty. She said no, she had no stomach for it.

The New York Observer fact-checked her written account and discovered that Mr. Griffin was killed by a former co-worker with no criminal record who confessed to the crime immediately. At trial, he was convicted within hours and the prosecution did in fact ask for the death penalty, but was denied. Ms. Grace explained the variance by telling The Observer, “I have tried not to think about it.”

So what if she got a few details wrong? The love of her life died when she was at a young age. And she’s been dealing payback ever since.

It can be a successful line of work. (Indeed, Beth Holloway, mother of Natalee, the young girl whose disappearance six years ago became a cable-television and “Nancy Grace” mainstay, now has a Lifetime show called “Vanished with Beth Holloway.”) But there are some signs that crime doesn’t pay as it once did.

E-mail: carr@nytimes.com;

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=e7156870369b7e8c0353985b5bc97f01

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