A Story for All Seasons: Summertime Crime Stories Are No Longer Confined to Hot-Weather Months

By Potter, Deborah | American Journalism Review, October-November 2003 | Go to article overview

A Story for All Seasons: Summertime Crime Stories Are No Longer Confined to Hot-Weather Months


Potter, Deborah, American Journalism Review


For almost decade now, television news has succumbed to summertime syndrome, letting one less-than-important story dominate the airwaves for months. This year it happened again, but the symptoms showed up early and stayed late. The result is that many viewers have been fed a restricted diet that's left them underinformed.

If you watched the 24-hour cable channels or the networks' morning programs from January through June, you might have thought there was little more important in America than the murder of Laci Peterson. According to the Tyndall Report, which monitors network newscasts, only the war in Iraq and its aftermath got more airtime in the first six months of this year on the three morning shows. On cable, producers apparently had trouble finding any other subject to talk about. According to the Washington Post, Greta Van Susteren's show on Fox News Channel covered the Peterson case 79 times, on more than half the shows broadcast over that same six-month period. MSNBC and CNN were on the bandwagon, too.

Then, just as the tale of Laci and Scott and their unborn child was lagging a bit between court hearings, along came the sexual-assault charge against NBA star Kobe Bryant. The TV hounds were off on another chase, descending on another small town, staking out another courthouse. The story had unmistakable echoes of a previous summertime obsession with a celebrity athlete in the spotlight, minus the signature white Bronco.

What's the attraction of stories like O.J. Simpson, Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson and Kobe Bryant? They're true crime stories in which the victims are attractive, young, female and white. Many of the accused or implicated are prominent and well-to-do. And there's something else: They're all stories of no great significance to anyone except those involved, yet journalists won't admit it.

O.J. wasn't just a celebrity murder, remember, it was a compelling story about race and power in America. And covering Chandra Levy's disappearance was "just as legitimate as covering the patients' bill of rights or campaign finance, maybe more so," Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times, "because here the press has a crucial role in forcing out the truth." Say what?

Sure, these stories have a veneer of drama and mystery that make them interesting, in a prurient sort of way. Of course, we can't expect news organizations to ignore them entirely. But are they more deserving of coverage than health care or the deficit? …

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