I wrote this five days after the verdict of the Casey Anthony Jodi Arias murder trial was announced, and while on the one hand I’m a little worried that the lateness of the article makes it totally irrelevant, I also really, really hope that this article is totally irrelevant, because the trial certainly was.
There was never any reason anybody should have cared about this case. This was one woman accused of killing her boyfriend. There may have been some kinky sex involved. How this affects anyone not directly affiliated with the case or people involved is a mystery to me, yet it became a huge news story.
The weird thing is, I’m not exactly sure who cared in the first place. I do, however, know whose fault it is.
The common refrain about schlocky, exploitative stories like this is that the only people who care are in the media. Well, based off the reaction of the newsroom I was working in when they announced the verdict, that’s not entirely true. It’s not all of the media’s fault. On the contrary, a lot of the media hate hate hated this story.
Nobody in the newsroom I work in was happy to be reporting on the Arias case, and we hardly covered it. Everybody was complaining about how they didn’t care, nobody they knew cared, and that this was stupid. Yet we had to cover it, at least a little, because it was already a story. It was a self-perpetuating news story.
Some of the comments I overheard right before the verdict was read included, “Does anybody know anybody who cares about this?” and “I need to Google the basic facts of this case because I’ve been too busy reporting real news,” and “I don’t know, should we put money down on what the verdict is?”
(We did not put any money down. We are professionals.)
To be fair, I work for a place that does radio journalism. The way we report is a sort of a middle ground between print and TV. It’s a near-constant broadcast, but it’s also much more planned than a lot of TV news is. Rarely, if ever, does anchor just speak off the cuff to fill time, and there is no speculating. It’s quick, it’s efficient, and it’s extremely careful about fact checking. In other words, it’s a little too professional to be devoting time to an unimportant murder trial.
You know who isn’t too professional to devote all this time to a murder trial? Cable news. Especially CNN.
I know it’s like beating a dead horse at this point, but my God, is CNN terrible. And they drove this story into the ground. Between CNN proper, which covered it all of the time, and their subsidiary HLN, which covered it literally all of the time, there was a truly disheartening amount of time and energy devoted to this crime. They really pulled out all the stops though. Murder-fetishist Nancy Grace was on the case. HLN aired a daily show covering the trial called HLN After Dark: The Jodi Arias Trial CNN was doing satellite news conferences from as far as 60 feet away from each other.
This piece of “journalism” on CNN.com might actually be one of the best things I’ve ever seen. It’s a primer about all the facts of the Jodi Arias case, entitled “Haven’t been following the Jodi Arias trial? Read this.”
I guess I don’t have a choice here. Okay. Hit me.
“…The case has captured massive if not total interest among Americans.”
This line is amazing. CNN, or at least someone at CNN, thinks that this murder trial has captivated the nation entirely. Nothing else matters but Jodi Arias. Even better, the very next sentence of the article contradicts this hysterically bold claim by noting that “…another segment of the nation asks, ‘Jodi who?”
In CNN’s world, everybody is talking about Jodi Arias 24/7. And if you are not, here’s what you need to know to be part of the most important news story of the millennium because you, sir, are missing out.
Eventually, we get to what I honestly think might be the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever read.
“Before you lob cries of a sensationalist media profiting off a gruesome death, realize that people are clamoring for the coverage. HLN has enjoyed a ratings boost since the trial began, and people drive hours to see the trial for themselves.”
It’s so desperate. It’s a plea, the network trying to convince itself that what it’s doing is important. Apparently, the Jodi Arias trial is important because people are watching it (because they are showing it.) It’s fraught with faulty logic. Just because people are clamoring for something doesn’t mean it’s not exploitative. In fact, it’s arguably more so if you’re admitting that your ratings are surging because of the coverage. That just means that it’s exploitative, and it’s working! Profits are up! CNN can afford another holodeck!
Furthermore, just because some people apparently want sensationalist coverage doesn’t make it worthwhile, or not-evil. Popularity does not measure any sort of value besides the monetary kind. Hey, before you lob cries of a tobacco company profiting off of a gross product that kills people, realize that people are clamoring for cigarettes. Is that an overblown comparison to make? Kinda.
As I was ranting about the sheer unimportance of the case and my continued hatred of cable news, a somewhat unsettling thought occurred to me, namely that I might be a huge hypocrite.
Since riding the train to work on a nearly daily basis, I’ve started to read a lot. At one point I was on a serious historical true crime kick. I backed away from the genre after I realized that the “recently purchased” section of my Amazon account did not paint a pretty picture, given that it was mostly a string of books about gruesome murders. There are a lot of books in this genre.
Clearly, there’s an audience for this type of story and apparently, I’m part of that audience. Why then, does the coverage of the Arias trial make me so angry when I’ve been borderline incriminating myself with my choice of reading material? What makes them different?
The main difference is that these are books, not news. I’m choosing to read about this subject, not getting beat over the head by a 24-hour, multi-platform news cycle that seems to think that this is important to everyone here and now. Unlike the Arias coverage, these books were written by authors – one person who meticulously researched every part of the case and had every detail available to them after the fact instead of bloodthirsty Nancy Grace and her cohorts filling time with speculation even when (especially when) there were no new facts.
A good true-crime book is also about more than just a murder. Take The People Who Eat Darkness, for example. It was about a murder, yes, but it was also a fascinating look at the misperceptions of Japanese culture and the failings of their police system. Midnight in Peeking gave a unique look into China right before the outbreak of World War II and the privileged foreigners who lived there.
Is the Jodi Arias trial about anything more than violence and sex? Maybe, but the coverage certainly isn’t.
Interestingly, a case could be made in retrospect that the Arias trial is also about the media. Two of the books I read, Murder of the Century and The Devil’s Gentlemen, were about murders and trials in turn-of-the century New York City that captivated the media. Both can lay claim to being the start of the “circulation wars” between Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s New York Journal. This was where yellow journalism and tabloids started. These papers gave these two murder trials nonstop coverage, doing their own investigative work and even making up some facts when it would help sell papers. More “respectable” rags like The New York Times still covered the cases, but not with nearly the same fervor as the tabloids. You almost get the sense that what was reported in these papers was done so begrudgingly.
Hmm. Where have I seen this before?
I guess the lesson of all this is that people (and the media) never change. Maybe, in a few decades, some author will revisit the Arias case. They’ll explore all the details, and write a tome that captures the spirit of the time. I imagine it will be a pretty damning indictment of our media and our culture, and it’ll be a fascinating read.
Living through the coverage though? That just sucks.