Pundits question HLN's coverage, but bigger cable news rivals noticed the ratings explosion and followed right along
Led by Nancy Grace, the entire cable landscape — and now the broadcast news networks — seem to have gotten drunk on the Casey Anthony trial.
A month ago, most Americans would have said: Casey who?
Yet when the jury reached its verdict Tuesday, Julie Chen cried on national television over the acquittal while networks CBS and ABC speed-raced to air hour-long nightly specials over the case.
“I’m amazed that it got so much attention that it’s been almost nonstop, especially on Headline News, but also on Fox and MSNBC and elsewhere,” said Al Tompkins, senior faculty member for the Poynter Institute’s broadcasting and online group. “This is not like a lot of other trials that have involved celebs or people that were famous, or somehow very high profile prior to the incident.
This was just a person in a murder case like many, many, many other murders in the U.S.
"Why does this case get such coverage?”
Answer: Ratings, ratings, ratings.
Grace’s single-minded pursuit of the "truth" about infant Caylee Anthony's death put CNN’s Headline News in second place during June, the 29-year-old channel's best ratings month ever. And it also helped the network challenge Fox News in the coveted 25-54 demo during primetime.
Of course, the bigger cable news outlets noticed HLN's ratings success. As the numbers looked better and better for HLN, MSNBC, FNC and even CNN began devoting more and more of their air time to the trial.
By the time Tuesday’s verdict was announced, it wasn't just cable news channels covering the trial, but almost every major media outlet.
There are myriad explanations why this trial became such a media circus.
For one, there is the usually slow summer news cycle — with the Anthony Weiner scandal winding down in mid-June, the Casey Anthony Trial was there to fill the void.
“You could make the argument this is the doldrums of summer — nothing else of any real importance is happening,” Tompkins said. “I always say the greatest political scandals of the last 30 years usually happen in August.”
There is also Florida’s policy of allowing cameras in the courtroom. In states that do not permit that, the level of access and coverage could not have been as great.
Above all, there is the intrigue.
“They blow up like this from time to time,” said Dick Wald, professor of journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a former ABC News president. "Pretty blond girl dies somewhere in a resort island in the Caribbean, and the whole world gets fascinated. You have to be blonde and pretty and there have to be other interesting aspects. We are a society of people who look for novels in our general appreciation of life.”
Adding to the novel-like intrigue, this murder is unsolved and involves a woman who did not report her child as missing for a month.
Said one cable news producer: “It’s the mother angle, the idea that a little girl disappears — it's just a mixture of everything that could go wrong went wrong."
It is this last point that may have started it all, for while the roots of the case’s appeal may be diffuse, there is no question which media personality stands at the center of it all – Grace.
“She was the first to push the story,” the producer said. “As a mother of young twins, she felt a visceral reaction. And because she had that visceral reaction, the producers there said we have got to do this story.”
When the trial started in late May, HLN was mired in a ratings slump, facing a double-digit dip in ratings year-to-year. Grace's passion became the channel's way of ending its slump.
Grace began devoting more and more time to the trial, fellow primetime hosts Dr. Drew Pinksy and Joy Behar were advised to do the same, and HLN even created a 5 p.m. show — called “Special Report” — to cover the Anthony trial, as well as the upcoming trial of Dr. Conrad Murray, who is being charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson.
As HLN devoted more and more time to the story, its ratings grew — Grace’s in particular. June was the best month ever for the network, and all of a sudden Grace found herself competing with Fox's Bill O’Reilly (not to mention leaving MSNBC's Lawrence O’Donnell in the dust).
“The whole franchise, the entire channel is built around her at this moment,” Tompkins said.
While this trial may be a boon for Grace’s career, there are those who question the fairness of her coverage.
Grace, a trained lawyer, has taken to referring to Casey Anthony as “tot mom.” After hearing the verdict on Tuesday, she not only refused to accept it but said that, "somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight."
“It's just unforgiveable the amount of vitriol that has come from her show that has now permeated the entire channel,” Tompkins said. “There was no room for them for anything other than a guilty verdict.”
“I’m not sure whether she considers herself to be a journalist,” he added. “What she’s practicing is not journalism. It has a lot to do with advocacy and maybe even a vendetta.”
Whether Grace is a journalist or not would seem particularly salient given that HLN is the property of the CNN, the cable network that prides itself on being unbiased. Yet the producer suggested that CNN views HLN as more sensationalist and the stories it pursues as tawdry.
“The idea is that HLN, they can go play in the mud,” the producer said.
That sentiment seems to be shared by many, who do not see the trial as especially serious.
“Don’t think of it as a momentous occasion in American jurisprudence,” Wald said. “It’s a play, a B movie. Why do people go to see things like this? Because it is entertainment.”
Yet while Wald sees the intense coverage as natural, others seem to think it is both upsetting and unfortunate.
“It’d be different if this case actually sparked interest in things like missing children (and generated) more money for forensic investigations," Tompkins said. "There is not a lot underneath it, and that is my argument against so much coverage.”
Anthony’s defense has begun to push back against the media. Counsel Jose Baez appeared Tuesday night on Fox's “Geraldo at Large,” and earlier in the day his co-counsel, Cheney Mason explicitly criticized coverage of the trial.
"I hope that this is a lesson to those of you that have indulged in media assassination for three years," Mason said. "Bias, prejudice and incompetent heads saying what would be and how to be.
"I'm disgusted by some of the lawyers who have done this.”