COLUMN - In praise of tabloid TV

Sun Jul 7, 2013 2:08pm EDT

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By Jack Shafer

July 7 (Reuters) - Allow me to defend cable TV's extended live coverage of the George Zimmerman murder trial, even though I've not watched a second of it, nor have I tuned in to any of the nightly rehashes aired on CNN, HLN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel.

Championing the Zimmerman telemania puts me at variance with the critics of tabloid TV, who want the cable news networks to focus their cameras instead on the Cairo uprising, President Barack Obama's climate speech, the slaughter in Syria, voters' rights, the NSA outrages, Wall Street, congressional hearings, and other examples of "meaningful" and "important" news.

Directly disparaging CNN's Zimmerman surplus at the expense of the Egyptian uprising is New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who asserts that the network's new president, Jeff Zucker, "wants everyone in his company to know what the priorities are: Mini-series in the center, world events off to the side."

Rosen is right about what Zucker wants. But the call for more broadcast hours devoted to news "that matters" and fewer hours of TV trials that, as many have accurately put it, are barely distinguishable from CSI episodes, might have been more persuasive in the days when the television audience had only the three broadcast network newscasts to choose from, when the only national newspaper was the business-oriented Wall Street Journal, when there was no real-time access to foreign newspapers and broadcasts, and when researchers were only fantasizing about something as ubiquitous as the Web.

But today's media menu gives the news audience more opportunities than ever before to find the news that others might describe as meaningful and important. It might have made sense three decades ago, when CNN was getting started, that its over-coverage of one story was blotting out other, more worthy stories. But that critique doesn't apply to 2013.

CNN, which used to be the only TV news meal at times of breaking international news like this, is only one of the entrees. Any number of sites have live-streamed the Egyptian protests on to the Web and sharply reported, photographed, and filmed accounts from Cairo are only a hashtag search away the reader's eye. Go ahead and complain about CNN if you want to, but footnote your critique with easily accessible alternative sources.

In today's media environment, the media critic who insists that the cable networks follow Egypt and drop Zimmerman is like the nudging dining companion who wants to order both his meal and yours, lest you embarrass him by mistakenly ordering the burger and fries. He finds the burger and fries déclassé and bad for you and would rather you add something more tofu-and-wheatgrassy to your media diet.

To be fair, the best tabloid TV contains more nourishment than any burger and fries platter, even if it will always be déclassé. If you read HLN's transcripts from Nancy Grace's shows about the Zimmerman case, you'll absorb enough information about how the criminal justice system works to write a MOOC on how to defend or prosecute a murder case. Most of what a layman needs to know about police investigations, police interrogations, witness rights, evidentiary standards, jury selection, and courtroom strategy can be found in Grace's shriekings and those of her commentators. A week's worth of her Zimmerman coverage probably contains as much civic education as any half-dozen Frontline documentaries on PBS.

The transformation of some of TVland's laziest couch potatoes into armchair lawyers began in the early-1990s, as Court TV (now TruTV) lent its relentless attention to the murder trials of the Menendez brothers and of O.J. Simpson. CNN has preserved Court TV's greatest hits on a page that links to highlights from the trials of the Menendez brothers, Simpson, Timothy McVeigh, Andrea Yates, Michael Skakel, William Kennedy Smith, Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, Phil Spector, and more.

Like every audience that's ever gathered around a fire, TV viewers hunger for stories about the fall of the great, of infanticide and rape, of jealous murder and madness, of child abuse and racial or clan conflict. The TV trials of George Zimmerman, Jodi Arias, Casey Anthony, and all the others engage viewers because the human fascination with sordid and depraved stories seems to have no limits.

The mass media's exploitation of criminal cases dates back as far as New York City's Thaw murder trial of 1907. Dubbed "The Trial of the Century," the case sounds all the plot notes found in a modern cable news extravaganza. There's a celebrity model, psycho sex, rape, drugs, Broadway, an inherited fortune, mental illness, class issues, and, of course, murder. New York's dailies bulged with accounts of the murder and trial. The morning after the model took the stand, William Randolph Hearst's New York American spent five pages on the case and Joseph Pulitzer's equally yellow competing paper, the New York World, contributed four. Out of town newspapers in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia gave it two pages or more. Even the reserved New York Times printed the better part of a page from the trial's first day and continued to chase the story. "The Thaw case is being reported to the ends of the civilized globe," the Times reported. "Arrangements have even been made by which the stories written in court may be placed upon a wire connected with the Atlantic cable, so that they may be flashed without a moment's delay to London."

The audience's appetite for strong meat like this hasn't changed, only the venue. Television can easily make a murder trial, or the travails of a crippled cruise ship, visual and immediate while a modern newspaper must struggle to convey those aspects.

Whether by design or chance, the daily newspaper has largely abandoned the simple and direct stories that filled their pages 100 years ago. In a 1997 paper), scholars Kevin G. Barnhurst and Diana Mutz analyzed 2,160 randomly chosen stories from three newspapers to chart the century-long migration of what they call "event-centered reporting" out of daily newspapers. Concise stories about accidents, murders, fires, accidents, suicides, robberies, and life's other eternals once filled the daily newspaper. If an article's story line merited more, it was treated as an unfolding serial and spread over subsequent issues.

Over time, newspapers started giving greater emphasis to the analytical and interpretive angles of a story - the how and why instead of the what, who, when, and where. This newer journalism tends to name fewer individuals but "more groups, officials, and outside sources." Stories may have gotten longer but there are fewer of them. And instead of telling their stories in the present, the time span that has been favored by narrators since the beginning, newspapers now rely on broader timelines, which better support the analytical approach. Modern journalism has become a reference tool, Barnhurst and Mutz wrote, "and consumers use the paper not by reading entire narratives but by scanning and collecting bits of information.  The market thus produces news meant to be referred to, not read."

Their researchers found the old newspaper stories they coded for the study unexpectedly "riveting," making copies of their favorites to circulate, such as an April 17, 1894, Page One New York Times story about a fight between two drivers of horse-drawn trotters on Long Island. It's told in six tight paragraphs. It was the recent news stories the researchers found "fiercely dull" and whose length and complexity "made them difficult to quote or recount."

Whatever denunciations you've reserved for the tabloid TV treatment of the Zimmerman story, you can't call it fiercely dull, hard to quote, or difficult to recount. Murder, the more specific the better, makes everything more interesting.

(Jack Shafer)