Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Murder, 21st Century Soap Opera

What, asks an old riddle, do you call a hundred lawyers under the ocean? A good start. Now, what do you call a thousand lawyers under glass? Cable TV news.

In 17 years since the O.J. trial, media fascination with murder has morphed from classic elements as fame, race and sexual rage to pathetic obsession with the death of a little girl and the guilt of her possibly disturbed young mother.

Now the Casey Anthony verdict brings into focus the extent to which reality TV has infected the daylight hours, supplementing inexpensive adventure and talent shows with even cheaper studio sets and courtroom coverage.

For weeks, CNN’s outpost HLN outranked Fox and other cable channels with its trial coverage and, after announcement of the verdict yesterday, CNN’s web site had a million live-video users, 30 times as high as its usual average.

Crime has become this century’s substitute for soap opera, dispensing with the need for writers, actors and other artifices, going right to the gut of the lonely, alienated homebound and bored office workers.

A Florida newspaper reports, “Thousands of people wrote letters to Anthony. Women mailed her magazines and books, asked her for dating advice. Men asked for her hand in marriage, told her she was beautiful, sent her money.” (Renee Zellweger in "Chicago," anyone?)

Now, there will be furious debate over the unexpected not-guilty verdicts and, on a more refined plane, about the exploitative role of the media in distorting the justice system, with Anthony’s chief electronic prosecutor Nancy Grace garnering even more attention with her outrage.

With social media involved, it will all seem very 21st century. But at bottom, will there be much difference from Nathanael West’s classic 1939 black comedy, “Day of the Locust,” originally titled “The Cheated,” in which an enraged crowd enacts its bottled-up feelings by rioting at a Hollywood premiere?

That, too, was a time of Depression and worldwide social upheaval.

Update: The Orlando soap opera moves to a new chapter with a four-year sentence and $4000 fine, a tap on the wrist when time served is included.

Even the closest viewers are confused as the New York Times at first reports the wrong parent-grandparent combination that concealed the child’s death in a family in which defense lawyers claimed their client “had been sexually abused by her father and had been taught to lie her entire life.”

The Partridge family, it wasn’t.

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