The top story on TV news lately has not been the Iraq war or tentative Lebanon peace, or major court rulings on tobacco and warrantless wiretapping, or oil prices or pension "reform" or any of a dozen stories that affect millions of citizens.
TV's top story -- a new suspect in the decade-old murder of 6-year-old beauty princess JonBenet Ramsey -- affects very few people.
But it has the potential of grabbing millions of us, as spectators. That's the beauty of the story to the owners and managers of TV news -- my former bosses. They couldn't be more thrilled to see new life in the tabloid story of the death of Little Miss Colorado, a story they'd grudgingly given up on years ago.
In a media system dominated by entertainment conglomerates, it's no accident that we're served up a steady stream of "top" stories saturated by sex, violence and celebrity: OJ, Princess Di, JonBenet, JFK Jr., Condit/Levy, child abductions (especially upper-middle class blonde girls), Laci Peterson, the runaway bride, the missing teen in Aruba, etc.
Let's face it: The Murdochs and Disneys and Time Warners and GEs that own our media system much prefer a nation of mindless consumers and spectators over a nation of informed, active citizens. They like the fact that avid TV viewers know all the intimate details about the JonBenet or OJ murder cases -- and almost nothing about how big corporations lobby against middle-class interests in Washington.
Best of all to TV news managers, tabloid stories are cheap to cover, especially when pundits or legal experts can fill up hours of time with their (often ridiculously wrong) speculation. And these are stories that can't possibly offend powerful forces in Washington, or advertisers.
In my new book Cable News Confidential, I describe my years as a pundit at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Their instinct toward tabloidism is like a junkie's impulse toward crack. I know what it's like to have to fill up airtime with speculation on a tabloid story when there's no news to report. And I've seen my share of people accused of murder by on-air analysts who suffered no repercussions for the evidence-free accusations. (In the case of JonBenet, her parents were repeatedly found guilty of murder on TV.)
In the summer of 2001, as terrorists went about plotting the 9/11 attacks, cable news was obsessed with one and only one huge story: the disappearance of D.C. intern Chandra Levy. She'd had an affair with Congressman Gary Condit, who was wrongly accused over and over on cable news of involvement in the murder. Levy was the apparent victim of random street crime.
In 2002, I spent hours on-air at MSNBC as the "Beltway sniper" terrorized the D.C. area with long-range rifle attacks. The one thing most experts were sure about in the weeks of speculation is that the culprit was white, and he was a loner. Wrong and wrong. There were two culprits, both black.
It was the O.J. Simpson trial of 1995 that had changed TV news forever. That's when management saw that "news," turned into soap opera, could actually compete with entertainment programming for ratings . . . and was much cheaper to produce.
The next year, after MSNBC and Fox News had launched to compete with CNN, JonBenet was murdered. TV news thought it had its next O.J.-type story, and the kiddie beauty pageant footage -- looking creepily like kiddie-porn -- began to run in an endless, exploitative loop. But the JonBenet case lost steam when no one was charged. The circus-trial never materialized. Thankfully, Monica Lewinsky burst on the scene and cable news went virtually all-Monica-all-the-time until Clinton's impeachment acquittal in 1999.
The Clinton acquittal left cable news in the doldrums again. But wait, a JonBenet grand jury was now stirring in Boulder. By October 1999, indictments were expected. For cable news, the long-coveted trial and ratings bonanza were finally at hand. All eyes were on Boulder. The prosecutor stepped to the mike and announced the grand jury's conclusion: There was insufficient evidence to charge anyone.
It was a crushing setback for TV news. I went on the air on Fox News and joked that we could expect "mass suicides" among cable news executives. My prediction was unfortunately wrong.
With the arrest of a murder suspect in Thailand, the tortured soul of JonBenet Ramsey is once again prey for TV news. She lived six sparkling years. And corporatized media has been able to feast on her death for many years since.
In recent days, TV news viewers have witnessed the round-the-clock spectacle of in-depth examination and wide-ranging debate about whether the JonBenet suspect is the real culprit -- exactly the kind of depth and questioning that's missing on those issues that affect millions of us: war and peace, economics, environmental degradation, Constitutional freedoms.
If only we'd had such probing before Team Bush dragged our country into the Iraq war.