Saturday, August 19, 2006

JonBenet Ramsey And The News Media's Tablification

I'm a cable news junkie.

Even before cable T.V., I would watch the evening news with my grandfather. I had cousins in Viet Nam and I think my grandfather would watch the news in hopes of maybe catching a glimpse of one of his grandsons. Either way, it became a life-long habit. Along the way I learned that watching the news is an art and a science, there is almost always more to the story and the best reporters know how to tell you what's going on without actually saying anything. I learned that the really important stories were seldom at the top of the news or on the front page, they were presented in the middle of the broadcast in 20 second blurbs or buried in the second section of the news paper in a single-column. This was effective, it allowed reporters to report and readers to get a snapshot of events in the world on a given day.

CNN came along and for it's first decade or so did a great job bringing us the "Breaking News", along with so good analysis. Good enough that the CIA and FBI kept it on 24/7 because CNN would get the news before they did. CNN had some journalistic high points: The Fall of the Berlin Wall, Desert Storm and the attempted overthrow of Gorbachev. When you've got the Russian section at CIA glued to your coverage that's just damn good reporting. Other cable news outlets sprang up along the way, MSNBC, CNBC and Fox News stretched the horizon of information that was available at the click of a remote.

Then, in June 1994, a white Ford Bronco lead Los Angeles police on a low-speed chase that lead to the capture and arrest of a Hall of Fame NFL running back for the murder of his wife and an unlucky waiter. Ratings went through the roof at the cable news networks and they scrambled to keep the case at the top of every newscast and featured it throughout their programming lineup. They hired legal experts of every strata of the justice system and stuck them in almost every show, since the accused was an NFL legend even the sports departments got into the act.
They had every aspect of the case nailed down and had convicted the suspect well in advance of the trial. Once the trial commenced, with the recaps we got a dose of "I told you so", which was in anticipation of the guilty verdict. The problem was that with all of the hot air from all of those talking heads they somehow didn't realize that TU jury wasn't seeing the same trial that everyone else was seeing. When the "Not Guilty" verdict was handed down, some of the talking heads were visibly ill.

One would think that they'd have learned their lessons and would have strove to improve their overall quality. Maybe even tone down the B.S. level a tad. Nope, what they learned was that sensationalism was great for ratings. They had also merged tabloid journalism with what used to be respectable reporting. Tabloid journalism has different standards and a pre-set playbook that they apply to specific types of stories, after this merge a story that didn't fit into a specific type of story molded until it did fit or it was ignored. This is how a little things like the collapse of tech stocks and Enron went undiscovered in advance.

Then came December 26th, 1996, and cable news was handed a story that was taylor made for the new "Tablified" cable news networks. The murder of a little girl, the murder of a cute little girl, a cute little girl who's father was a billionaire. The little girl's mother entered her in beauty pageants, and there was lots of video of her singing and dancing while wearing the makeup of a much older person. The machine that had been created for the cable news networks was dusted off and put back to work to cover this case. New experts were hired and the old ones now had their own shows, time was made for special editions where the new experts would argue with the old experts about a case that none of them had first hand knowledge. "Getting it right!" was replaced with "Getting it first" and many mistakes were made in the first days of this case by the local news media, mistakes about basic facts that would become gospel in the later phases of the coverage and are still quoted even after they've been refuted by the local law enforcement. The media would squeeze about a year out of this story, because of the mistakes in the intitial coverage the media had 22222 most people that the parents were the guilty parties in the murder of their daughter. The "Experts" sited case profiles where a parent had been guilty and since it had been true in those cases it then MUST be true with this case. Who cares what the evidence actually was? Yes, the Ramseys didn't help their image but being strange isn't a crime.

In the years since the murder, which is still unsolved, the media has a lot of hand-wringing over their coverage of the Ramsey case. There has been a lot of "Shame On Us" and wrist slapping, many questions of how they got so out of control. I notice that they never have answers for this introspection. The Tablification was complete, you can tell because they cannot tell between right or wrong, any behavior is acceptable in pursuit of the story. Then this week a man is arrested in Thailand and he confesses to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.

It was a sight to see.

The media prefaced this story with an admission that they'd gotten carried away and made a ton of mistakes when the case broke back in 1996. They then spent the next 36 hours doing the exact same thing with this new addition to the story. I have whiplash. He's guilty, he knows only things the killer would know...No! Wait! He said things in his statement that don't match the facts (the real ones, not the made up ones). Has the Boulder DA blown it? Will this guy walk? Who is this guy?

I have an idea, why doesn't everyone shut the hell up and wait until they've done a little backround on this new suspect? Better yet, let the police do it. I don't need to know right now, and I don't want my brain filled up with crap.

Take your time, keep your cool and GET IT RIGHT.

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