"What's the next big story? Is it Laci Peterson? Because Laci Peterson got a whole lot more minutes' worth of coverage on the cable news channels in the last week than we'd have ever expected just a few days after a regime fell, like Saddam Hussein." So said widely reviled NBC reporter Ashleigh Banfield in her even-more-widely reviled April 24 speech decrying the media's trivialization of the second gulf war.
Was the hard-working Banfield, stranded in Manhattan, Kansas, while the resistless power of the American state finished smashing a tinpot Babylonian dictatorship half a world away, alone in her dismay? Not at all. Describing the gravity and seriousness of a Los Angeles Times "Festival of Books" panel she served on last weekend, activist Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington let this drop: "We were not discussing Scott Peterson." At issue: whether columnist Christopher Hitchens had given the panel's audience the finger.
"Foreign-born women," you say, "Of course they'd be too uptight to savor the Peterson case, this latest road apple from the American smorgasbord!" But wait! What of our own Howard Kurtz? Here's what the Washington Post media reporter had to say recently:
The new zeitgeist was on display the other day when the cable news outfits broke away from a Donald Rumsfeld news conference to go live to a California coroner talking about a body that could be that of Laci Peterson, who disappeared on Christmas Eve—back when television was still obsessed with such cases. Iraq suddenly seemed like…history. What's next, the return of killer sharks?
If there seemed to be a note of relief in Kurtz's tone, that may be an acknowledgment that no news conference with the secretary of defense will ever equal the level of detail and news gathering evident in, for example People's recent Laci Peterson cover story. But shouldn't we at least feel some shame over the Peterson case's heretofore undiscovered racial angle? This is the feeling of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson. "[I]n the race to be first with the news," Johnson writes, "the unintended message sent by media outlets is that readers and viewers care less about everyday crime victims that have little news value and no shelf life, especially if the victims are not pretty and white." His point of comparison: the 2001 murder of journalist Luci Houston, which did not receive Laci-level attention despite similarities in the two cases. The dissimilarities in the cases, as one alert Chron reader wrote in response, include the fact that Houston was missing for a mere five days and was not pregnant, and that her estranged husband was charged with the crime almost immediately. Nevertheless, the Chronicle has followed the columnist's lead by handling this interesting local story with ice tongs, leaving lesser papers like the Contra Costa Times to do the heavy lifting. (The obliging Times turns up the novelistic detail that Scott Peterson's senior yearbook entry predicted: "Great things and good deads (sic) await all of us").
One way or another, people will find a way to be embarrassed by the Laci Peterson story. But perhaps the telling feature here is not how many complaints there have been like those above, but how few—and how quickly defenders of the media's lowbrow interests have mobilized. This of course is a breakthrough traceable to the OJ Simpson case, that touchstone of popular news circuses, in which the terms of media scolding were dramatically and finally reversed; if anything, it was the gatekeepers of serious news who spent 1994 and 1995 on the defensive, while bad news junkies relished the case's every telling, unseemly twist.
I do not claim that the Peterson case promises anything like the Dickensian richness of the OJ case. But the sad tale of Laci, Scott, and Conner the fetus offers a variety of attractions beyond mere sordidness. To name a few:
The double homicide bind Not since Pope Gregory XIV has the issue of fetal "ensoulment" received such a public forum as it is getting in this case, where Scott Peterson has been charged with killing not only his wife but their unborn son (who was in his eighth month of prenatal development).
Most of this discussion is in fact not relevant to the case at hand; because the fetus was almost fully grown, many commentators have assumed that the second murder charge is based on the baby's being in its third trimester. Pro-life advocates have seized upon the case as a ringing rebuke to third-trimester abortions. How can the killing of one late-term baby be judged a murder while another is protected by the right to privacy? The ill-judged comments of a New Jersey-based official of the National Organization for Women add some unfortunate color to the events. As Sara Rimensnyder correctly predicted at the time, the NOW organization quickly disassociated itself from this official, but pro-lifers have continued to hit this point.
As it happens, the late-term circumstance is a red herring in this case. California's fetal homicide law considers any fetus more than eight weeks into development—many months shy of viability outside the womb—an equal victim in a homicide. Some 27 states have such laws today, though not all are as strict as California's. (It was news to me, and I'd assume to many other Californians, that such a law existed at all.)
Nevertheless abortion partisans on both sides are correct on one thing: The fetal homicide law creates an enormous legal paradox, and giving it such a public stage prompts yet another round of rethinking the issue of whether and when a fetus should count as a human being. California skirts this paradox by stipulating that it only treats cases of "unlawful" killing "with malice aforethought." If this solves the legal dilemma, it's also a distinction without a difference. Whether or not the termination of a fetus can ever be lawful is the very heart of the abortion debate, and the Peterson case brings all the disputed points, including third-trimester abortion, back into the public eye—even if, technically, they don't belong there.
The fair trial paradox Is there any scenario under which Scott Peterson could be tried by twelve people who approach the case without preconceptions? Is it even possible to construct a counter-theory, in which somebody other than Scott is guilty? (My own pet theory, that Amber did it, appears to fall apart on close scrutiny.) The difficulty of fairly judging Scott Peterson, a man who in the public mind is already as guilty as, well, OJ, has been widely considered.
Here too, red herrings have turned up. Peterson's recent behavior—the absurd peroxide 'do, the arrest "thirty miles from the Mexican border" with pockets full of cash, the supposedly incriminating life insurance policy, the ungallant stag fishing trip on Christmas Eve—have been popularly viewed as condemnatory. They are nothing of the kind. As always, the character of the individual has nothing to do with the commission of the crime, except when it does.
Presumption of innocence got another wrinkle with Friday's announcement that celebrity attorney Mark Geragos would be taking over Peterson's case. Conservative pundits have had a field day over Geragos' association with beloved defendants of yesteryear like Roger Clinton, Susan MacDougal and Winona Ryder. But a more relevant fact is Geragos' involvement in the case of former congressman Gary Condit, another Modesto resident who was almost unanimously considered guilty of murder, thanks to a combination of circumstance, motive and strange behavior. As it turned out, Condit, after the destruction of his reputation and political career, was completely exonerated in the killing of Chandra Levy. (Amusingly, Geragos argued on Fox News that there was already enough evidence to convict Peterson, then, a few days later advised CNN's audience that Peterson could be "stone-cold innocent." There must be a lesson here about the cable channels and their biases, but I can't quite tease it out.)
Of course, the difficulty of approaching a trial with an open mind weighs on any legal case. But the famous cases underscore this universal problem. The real question: Can we endure the inevitable "civil trial" if Peterson is acquitted?
Stories within the story No sooner did People publish its Peterson cover story than the magazine was sued by a woman who had provided a photo for the story on the condition that the magazine remove an image of her from the background. (The image is to my eye indecipherable.) It's a little hard to work up any sympathy for Sherina Vincent of Fresno, CA, who was willing to provide the color for this ignoble tale while trying to preserve her anonymity. Then again, isn't that what we all want? As these monster cases drag on, the side issues and incidental suits tend to proliferate. It is here that such proceedings shame all of humanity and truly delight misanthropes.
Back to the tabloids The National Enquirer, ending a period of exile since its accidental involvement in the 2001 anthrax scare, has been leading this story almost from the start. As noted above, People's cover story has been the best all-around document of the case. Are the respectable media truly better in some Platonic sense than the tabloids and gossip publications, or is it in fact stories like the war in Iraq that provide the distraction from the real news of murders and infidelity? (It is unlikely that many people reading this article were personally affected by either the war or the Peterson murders.) Look for the "real" media to hit back at their disreputable cousins with condemnations of "checkbook" journalism and tut-tutting about the race to the bottom. This is always a sure sign of a news organization getting beaten on a high-profile story. Good luck to the tabloids in following this ongoing story, and revealing its hidden depths and shallows—both those we've identified and those we haven't yet heard about.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.