Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Casey Anthony Verdict: The Real Loser? The Media

One of the first comments a member of Casey Anthony's defense team made after yesterday's surprising verdict was to slam the media coverage of the case.

Cheney Mason, said he hoped the verdict was a lesson to those who had "indulged in media assassination" during the three years between Caylee Anthony's disappearance and her mother's acquittal for murder.

Some may disagree on the jury's verdict, but no one can argue over the media's one-sided ratings motivated sensationalized coverage of this case. The talking heads have been relentless.

Speaking from the perspective of a spokesperson for the Dr. Conrad Murray case, set for trial in September, I can tell you as a former journalist how shocked I was at what passed for truth on cable TV. When we originally decided to have Murray's lawyers speak to the media at the very onset of the case we did so with one purpose: to level the playing field as much as we could and dispel the untrue rumors being bandied about as truth by the media. What I quickly learned was these many cable news shows and their "panel of experts" had no interest whatsoever in the truth. Oftentimes the host and their on-air expert would be debating some inaccurate fact about the circumstances surrounding Michael Jackson's death and when I tried to correct them and offer a lawyer to address the truth behind the rumor, I was shut down.

Here is an example, and yes I will use real names- there is no one innocent to protect. We got a call from the Contessa Brewer show asking one of Murray's attorneys at the time, Matt Alford, to appear and talk about the recent 3 hour LAPD interview Ed Chernoff had sat in on with Dr. Murray. We agreed to the interview, put a mic on Alford and sat in a chair in front of the studio camera waiting for the cue to come from the director that Alford was on the air through his earpiece. The interview began with Brewer asking some generally misinformed questions most assuredly thrust at her by her producer seconds before the interview began. Matt Alford answered the questioned succinctly, accurately and corrected much misinformation. Alford was interviewed maybe for three minutes before the director made the decision to "go to the panel".

The panel looked like a Hollywood Squares mis-mash of former prosecutors, defense attorneys, milkmen, and whomever else they could shove in a little box. One member of the "panel" immediatly began shouting, "Contessa, I don't understand what KIND of doctor wouldn't go in the ambulance with a patient in distress! Why didn't Murray accompany Michael Jackson to the hospital?!"Contessa said, "Yes, I agree, that is highly suspect."

Hearing this, I immediately contacted the producer and said- "Wait, that's not true at all- Murray did go to the hospital with Jackson, Matt Alford is still here, put him on again and he can speak to that."

I was told, (and I'm not exaggerating) "No thanks, our panel has this one." I asked, "Well, can you correct this misstatement for them?" "Not necessary," she replied.

I canceled the rest of our planned interviews with the network.

During the Nancy Grace-anchored live coverage of the verdict, correspondents interviewed people outside of the courthouse, most of them expressing dismay. Grace took phone calls, including one from a woman who said, "That woman just got away with murder, Nancy."

Michelle Zierler, director of the Project in Law and Journalism at the New York University School of Law, said she had essentially been convinced that Anthony was guilty from watching coverage of the trial. The jurors, however, weren't exposed to this coverage.

She said Grace "is always certain that the defendant is guilty and needs instant punishment."

"It's sort of entertainment and buyer beware, and unfortunately too many people succumb to that sort of hype," Zierler said.

She said she believed Grace's opinion affected her analysis of the case. For instance, Grace had criticized the closing arguments of Anthony's defense team while Zierler, who also watched, said she believed those lawyers did a good job summing up their case, even if they had not convinced her.

HLN President Scot Safon said he was comfortable with how the network had covered the case.

"Over the course of our coverage, we gave a platform to a pretty broad range of potential outcomes here," he said.

Given the extensive coverage of the trial, Mason's arguments probably got their fullest airing on HLN, he said.

HLN's ratings success is an indication that its focus on high-interest legal cases is likely to continue. Safon said HLN wants to concentrate on "water cooler" news stories that people like to talk about, and the Anthony case fit the approach perfectly.

By covering the trial extensively, HLN also filled a void left by Court TV, which was shut down and renamed Tru TV, with a focus on nonfiction programming. Safon said the network will probably give extensive coverage to the trial of Michael Jackson's doctor at the time of the pop star's death.

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