Chris Rock used to do a very funny routine about Michael Jackson. “Another kid?” he would ask in exaggerated disbelief, the underlying premise being, “Weren’t accusations of molesting one bad enough?”
The same thought surfaces on contemplating the U.S. news media’s fascination with lurid crime, only the variation here is, “Another missing, abducted, murdered child or photogenic young woman, almost invariably white?”
There’s no way to raise this objection without looking callous. Yet the reaction to and interest in the Casey Anthony trial — followed closely by ABC News’ boffo ratings for Diane Sawyer’s exclusive interview with kidnapping victim Jaycee Lee Dugard, and CNN’s HLN transforming into CAN (the Casey Anthony Network) — has grown so disproportionate as to renew the discussion.
The United States, after all, is a country of more than 300 million. Thousands are crime victims every year (although those figures have actually improved despite the ailing economy, something one would never suspect watching TV).
So what determines who becomes a “Good Morning America” fixture, and who just pads the statistics cited in relation to them?
The answer boils down to a crass calculation, a commercially driven imperative to emotionally attach news to the most lucrative and sought-after demographic out there — namely, young-adult women, preferably with children.
The reasons for courting this group are well known but bear repeating. Not only do women view more television than men (especially on broadcast networks), but they are perceived to play a bigger role in most purchasing decisions. In addition, a mother with kids in the house will almost invariably buy more of everything — from toiletries to food — than a single person or empty nester.
The next step — bombarding women with tales of abduction and murder — taps into deep-seated fears. And violence against children exploits a psychological impulse articulated by author Vicki Iovine in “The Girlfriends’ Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood,” one in a series of books — like so many magazines — aimed squarely at this cohort.
“Once a woman becomes a mother, she identifies with all mothers,” Iovine writes, adding how disturbed she is by news coverage of such stories. As an example, she references an antecedent to the Anthony case: Susan Smith, the woman who killed her children by driving her car into a lake, blaming the crime on an imaginary African-American carjacker.
“The Mothers’ Criminal Code is this: All people who intentionally hurt or disappoint children must serve prison time,” Iovine continues, adding that despite being an attorney, “Once babies are involved, I become a fascist.”
Nothing unleashes the public’s passion like crimes against children. As for young women — from Natalee Holloway to Chandra Levy to Laci Peterson — they’re not only somebody’s daughter, but for a mother with school-age kids, someone not so far removed from their experiences as a single person.
Translating this into ratings, consider Diane Sawyer’s recent interview with Dugard — tragically kidnapped, raped and held in captivity — which drew 15.1 million viewers for its initial telecast. Breaking down Nielsen data, just over 70% of them were women.
The final distasteful ingredient in this media stew is the increasingly common, out-in-the-open practice of paying news sources through the licensing of photos or video. Whether those receiving payments are deserving or unsavory doesn’t matter, as evidenced by the reported $200,000 that “Good Morning America” paid for Caylee Anthony videos that wound up helping underwrite her mother’s defense team.
Employing the “If Johnny Finnegan jumped off the Empire State Building” defense, “20/20’s” lightweight anchor Chris Cuomo told CNN, “I wish money was not in the game, but … that is the state of play.” And it’s a sorry state, indeed.
The major unknown in this equation is what other news gets overlooked as the steadfast focus on stories like Anthony’s inhale so much time and oxygen. The summer of 2001 stands out — when Levy’s disappearance was abruptly overshadowed by the Sept. 11 attacks — but evidence of what’s omitted is rarely so stark, even with the benefit of hindsight.
What’s clear is that a decade later, the media appetite for imperiled women and children, motivated by a pragmatic and justified faith in their drawing power, shows no signs of abating.
That’s why sooner or later, there will be another kid. BRIAN LOWRY