Commentary

News media make crime pay

But risk losing public trust

By John McManus
Posted Oct. 18, 2004
The most important news of the day?

Not since Scott Peterson was arrested has such adrenalin surged in newsrooms around the Bay, indeed across the country. Hold the front page! Let's go live! Another celebrity murder in our own backyard!

Like hyenas our intrepid news corps has converged near the East Bay mansion of celebrity attorney Daniel Horowitz, feeding on his fame and the bludgeoned body of his wife. Overhead, news helicopters wheel like birds of carrion.

And news executives wonder why the public considers them jackals, worthy of the same esteem as opportunistic lawyers like Mr. Horowitz who himself monetized celebrities' tragedies.

The slaying of Pamela Vitale dominated Bay Area news media.

"HUSBAND SAYS SLAIN WIFE 'FOUGHT LIKE HELL' FOR LIFE" screamed the San Francisco Chronicle in a story that consumed 61% of news space on today's front page. The murder captured an equal proportion of the Contra Costa Times' front page, although the Times' headline did not let the husband frame the news in his own defense.

"Blow to head killed lawyer's wife" reported the Oakland Tribune in a story bannered across the top of the front page. "Wife's killing makes TV analyst the story," declared the San Jose Mercury News in a similar banner story. But that conveniently ignores the fact that it is the media that are making the TV analyst the story. (If you doubt this, consider how the murder of a non-celebrity in such a remote area would have been reported.)

Live and in the dark.

Coverage on Bay Area television was intense. Multiple stories. Aerial video. Even mistakenly reporting an arrest when none had been made in an effort to get a scoop.

Cable news satellite trucks with giant saucers were jostling for spots at the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office. Celebrity anchors are flying in to "face" stories that others gather about the hottest whodunit since Natalee Holloway disappeared.

Giving the public what it wants

News execs will say the public demands massive coverage when celebrity and murder mix. They're only giving the public what it wants.That's the same justification the pornographer offers. Don't blame us. There's a ready market for the product.

But democracy doesn't depend on the integrity of the porn industry. Participatory government does rely on responsible journalism.

The murder of a celebrity's wife will affect the lives of only a handful of the Bay Area's seven million residents. For 99.9% of us, it's morbid entertainment. Its news value is near zero.

Distracting the public

When news media chose to make it the most prominent story of the day -- or month -- they distracted us from the issues that do affect our lives. They even obstructed justice by creating such a publicity storm that a judge declared a mistrial in an ongoing prosecution of a woman whom Mr. Horowitz was defending.

John McManus

People generally don't respect those who take advantage of their weaknesses, especially while adopting a posture of virtue. When news media encourage our morbid curiosity for their own benefit while putting on airs about their pivotal role in self-government (and claiming First Amendment protection against giving up their sources to prosecutors) they look two-faced.

We may devour these stories -- who could resist the voyeurism of how Scott Peterson bedded Amber Frey with champagne and strawberries? But at least some of us resent it when the media exploit our passions. Even addicts hate the pusher.

Broadcasters also violate a social contract. Television stations are granted free use of our airwaves while mere businesses like telephone companies must pay to rent them. That public subsidy is based on public service, not exploiting a market for the benefit of private shareholders.

Journalism cannot claim moral force and a special role above the rules, exempt from regulation and fees, while pandering to the public's morbid curiosity. As much as Americans love sensation, they hate hypocrisy.