Joanna Weiss

On TV, a theater of outrage

Nancy Grace’s frenzy over Casey Anthony trial wasn’t about justice; it was about ratings

People stop and watch the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial on a screen in New York’s Times Square. People stop and watch the verdict in the Casey Anthony trial on a screen in New York’s Times Square. (Reuters)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / July 7, 2011

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THE MOST striking thing about Casey Anthony’s acquittal on Tuesday was watching the crowd outside the courthouse in Orlando, howling at the verdict like a medieval mob that had been hoping to see someone drawn and quartered.

On one hand, it’s shocking to see such venom in people who knew neither Anthony nor the young daughter she’d been accused of killing. On the other hand, this is human nature: Faced with a wrong, we want somebody punished. Especially someone we’ve been conditioned to hate on TV.

And drumming up hatred was the purpose of much of the TV coverage of the trial - coverage that could be highly entertaining in a “Law and Order’’ way, but hardly qualifies as news.

By Tuesday night, the TV newscasters were looking for someone new to blame: a delinquent jury, a botched prosecution, a standard of justice forever altered by “CSI.’’ On the inevitable TV rehashings (“A special ‘360’! ’’ “A special ‘48 Hours’! ’’), the tenor was the same as it had been throughout the trial: Even as commentators praised the defense, the images onscreen made the prosecution’s case. Pictures of a sweet little girl were juxtaposed with pictures of her mother smiling in the courtroom, or partying with friends while her daughter was supposedly missing.

Sure, it looked outrageous. And HLN’s Nancy Grace, who years ago appointed herself the prosecutors’ chief ally, was the most outraged of them all. “Somewhere out there,’’ she said after the verdict, her mouth twisted in a wry smile, “the devil is dancing tonight.’’

Granted, Grace claims to have watched every word of the Anthony trial, and I did not. But from the ample print and televised coverage, here’s what I’ve gleaned: That the prosecution had scant physical evidence - perhaps because Anthony lied, or perhaps because the prosecutors’ theory was wrong. That a Florida jury, brought in from an alternate venue and wisely sequestered, took the concept of capital punishment seriously. That the state failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

This is precisely how the justice system is supposed to work, but on TV this week, the prevailing theme has been, “What went wrong?’’ On the Fox News Channel yesterday, Mark Fuhrman, the once-shamed investigator from the O.J. Simpson trial, declared that Anthony’s jury “did not use the term ‘reasonable doubt’ the way it was intended.’’

He may have believed that. Or he may simply have been doing his sworn duty as a talking head: Giving the boldest, firmest, most unequivocal statement possible.

Yes, there are a handful of legal experts on TV who can be counted on for neutral analysis. But too many cable-news talk shows are set up with hosts who channel indignation - and guests who are cast as dueling voices, attached to opposite sides. You don’t get the most air time by offering a measured point of view. It’s better to be partisan to the extreme, single-minded and sure of yourself, and, preferably, a little bit nuts.

Among that crowd, Grace is a virtuoso. She has mastered the dramatics of the best courtroom attorneys: She’s angry and accusatory one minute, choked-up and emotional the next. She knows how to turn a news story into a pop culture artifact: You give it a catchphrase (“Tot Mom’’). She knows how to cast herself as a hero: You cast people who oppose you as the devil.

In this age of zealous parenting, there’s no one more hateable than a callous, immature, irresponsible mother who seemed to enjoy partying more than taking care of her toddler. Casey Anthony was the perfect foil for a TV demagogue. But a jury considers evidence, not outrage.

Surely, no one knows this better than Grace, who has a law degree, after all. But her current job is not to be a lawyer. It’s to be a TV star, compelling enough to keep viewers coming back. On Tuesday night, her show drew its highest ratings ever.

So for anyone who’s still confused about whether justice has been served in the Anthony case - given the yawning chasm between Nancy Grace’s reality and the jurors’ - here’s the thing to remember. Grace doesn’t host a legal analysis show. She hosts an entertainment show. For legal matters, thank goodness, we have the courts.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.