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Jewish World Review August 3, 2004 / 16 Menachem-Av, 5764

Debra J. Saunders

Debra J. Saunders
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Hacks on Hacking | It doesn't speak well for the TV news business that at noon California time, CNN made a top story of the charge against Utah's Mark Hacking for the murder of his missing pregnant wife, Lori — in the middle of the Iraq war and a contentious political race to win the White House.

Even Internet columnist Matt Drudge hadn't rushed to report this item. The Hacking story wasn't on the Drudge Web site at noon, although Drudge did see fit to feature such headlines as: "Police drug-sniffing dog dies from overdose," "Cruise ship catering to eco-tourists spills 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel," and "Iran allowing sex-change operations."

Fox News ranked the Hacking story as its top Web site report, as CNN advertised that Monday night's "Larry King Live" would air the latest on the Hacking case.

Here we go again.

Another beautiful young white woman missing and another hinky husband — add them together, and you get another murder-trial media circus.

The same faces are back to comment. You met them at the O.J. trial. You saw them again when Chandra Levy disappeared, then Laci Peterson. They were on the case when authorities indicted Michael Jackson for child molestation and the feds accused Martha Stewart of insider trading. I don't need to name them — you know who they are.

Now, they are elbowing each other to be the next breathless expert to tell America "the latest dramatic new development" (in CNN parlance) or "shocking new lead" (in Fox News speak) in one of the oldest stories in the world.

First, let me say this: The news business always has traded in silly items, lurid tales and salacious stories, and it always will. Newspapers aren't the Magna Carta; hence they make room for astrological forecasts, comics, commentary on sports figures and crime stories that fascinate readers because the suspect is a heel or the victim was attractive, or one of the figures is a celebrity.

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Many journalists hate working on these stories. At the Ronald Reagan burial at his Simi Valley, Calif., presidential library, I remember hearing one TV camera crewman quip to another: "Hey, did you hear Scott Peterson is coming today?"

It's not so much the story that grates on some journalists but the hype, the over-coverage, the pretense of news when there is no news. If there's a small development, television channels tease viewers with a big new development.

The worst of it is that cable news focuses more on the suspect than the victim. A lovely young woman is dead, but she quickly becomes old news.

Instead, the stories are all about the suspect: He lied about his whereabouts. He bought something suspicious. He is acting funny. He's leading a double life.

After the indictment, the focus turns to whether the suspect can win in the obstacle course called a courtroom. The legal experts provide commentary on the skill of the lawyers, as forensic showmanship trumps evidence. The focus isn't on guilt or innocence. It is: Will he get off?

The trial has become a spectator sport. Analysts talk about the defense attorney as if he is a star pitcher. A good cross examination is a home run. They marvel at his technique. They opine on who has a good offense and a good defense. You would never guess somebody had died.

Last year, I defended why the media would cover Laci Peterson's disappearance. If a story is of interest to readers and viewers, I said, the media should cover it. And I still believe that.

I simply do not understand how anyone but family and friends can still be interested in the trial, as TV covers it. The experts have taken a quest for justice and turned it into a game. A game show.

As the late great Jerry Nachman of MSNBC put it, the Peterson story is "crack for us in the business ... we can't stop ourselves."

Bill O'Reilly told Vanity Fair's Maureen Orth that every time he does Peterson, his ratings spike: "We do Laci Peterson every 15 minutes and see the numbers go up. It's a story that resonates with women particularly."

Someone should produce another remake of the classic 1928 Broadway hit "The Front Page" — replacing Ben Hecht's and Charles MacArthur's ink-stained wretches with well-groomed cable TV commentators. But, this time, the movie can't be made without the essential supporting cast — the viewers who change the channel if there is no non-news on the crime story of the day.

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© 2003, Creators Syndicate