A STORY FOR ALL SEASONS
Summertime crime stories are no longer confined to hot-weather
by Deborah Potter
For almost a decade now, television news has succumbed to summertime
syndrome, letting one less-than-important story dominate the airwaves
for months. This year it happened again, but the symptoms showed
up early and stayed late. The result is that many viewers have been
fed a restricted diet that’s left them underinformed.
If you watched the 24-hour cable channels or the networks’
morning programs from January through June, you might have thought
there was little more important in America than the murder of Laci
Peterson. According to the Tyndall Report, which monitors network
newscasts, only the war in Iraq and its aftermath got more airtime
in the first six months of this year on the three morning shows.
On cable, producers apparently had trouble finding any other subject
to talk about. According to the Washington Post, Greta Van Susteren’s
show on Fox News Channel covered the Peterson case 79 times, on
more than half the shows broadcast over that same six-month period.
MSNBC and CNN were on the bandwagon, too.
Then, just as tale of Laci and Scott and their unborn child was
lagging a bit between court hearings, along came the sexual assault
charge against Kobe Bryant. The TV hounds were off on another chase,
descending on another small town, staking out another courthouse.
The story had unmistakable echoes of a previous summertime obsession
with a celebrity athlete in the spotlight, minus the signature white
What’s the attraction of stories like OJ Simpson, Chandra
Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson and Kobe Bryant? They’re
true crime stories in which the victims are attractive, young, female
and white. Many of the accused or implicated are prominent and well-to-do.
And there’s something else. They’re all stories of no
great significance to anyone except those involved, yet journalists
won’t admit it.
OJ wasn’t just a celebrity murder, remember, it was a compelling
story about race and power in America. And covering Chandra Levy’s
disappearance was “just as legitimate as covering the patients'
bill of rights or campaign finance, maybe more so,” Maureen
Dowd wrote in the New York Times, “because here the press
has a crucial role in forcing out the truth.” Say what?
Sure, these stories have a veneer of drama and mystery that make
them interesting, in a prurient sort of way. Of course, we can’t
expect news organizations to ignore them entirely. But are they
more deserving of coverage than health care or the deficit? No way.
To their credit, most TV news managers won’t stretch that
far to justify their decision-making. Summers usually are slow,
after all. There’s not much real news and we have so much
airtime, they argue, it’s almost unavoidable that some scandal
or calamity will fill the void.
But this year, nobody waited for the weather to warm up before
going hog wild with the Peterson story. And even after summer did
arrive, no one could seriously argue that nothing else was as newsworthy.
The economy, prescription drug relief, the Middle East, North Korea—you
name it—plenty of stories were more deserving of coverage
than Laci or Kobe.
What difference does it make if one story seizes control of the
news agenda? Everything else is pushed aside. It’s Sir Thomas
Gresham’s law at work: the bad drives out the good. The interesting
displaces the important.
Why is this allowed to happen? At least some news executives were
willing to be honest about their Laci fixation. “It’s
a compelling story with many angles that people…seem to be
interested in,” Fox News executive producer Bill Shine told
the Washington Post. “I’m responding to the ratings.”
And that’s what it’s all about. People watch these
stories, so producers put them on the air morning, afternoon and
night. The only programs that haven’t yet surrendered their
rundowns to these random tragedies are the network evening newscasts.
The newspapers had no trouble finding those other stories. Laci
Peterson wasn’t front-page news in print day in and day out,
except in one particular kind of publication: the supermarket tabloids.
Think about it, television news producers. Look at the company
you’re keeping. No one’s suggesting there shouldn’t
be room for “water cooler stories” on television, those
topics people are talking about, no matter how insignificant. But
when a “want to know” story leaves no room for “need
to know” stories, what are we left with? A newscast that informs,
or a program that titillates and entertains?
Summer, Nat King Cole sang, is a time of lazy, hazy, crazy days.
On television, we seem to be left with sleazy, cheesy, tease-y days.
And it’s going to take more than a change in the weather to
sweep these stories away.
This article was originally published
by American Journalism Review, October/November 2003