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Peterson trial divides media

/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The story has dominated cable television, employed an army of talking heads and gone on for what seems like an eternity. And this week it is coming to a close.

Not the election -- the Scott Peterson trial.

The story of how the pretty and pregnant Laci Peterson went missing on Christmas Eve 2002 and her fertilizer salesman husband was charged with murder after her body and that of her unborn son, Conner, were found in San Francisco Bay is probably known to every sentient being in America. As is the fact that Scott Peterson's phone conversations with his former lover were recorded.

For almost two years, the buildup and the trial have been followed relentlessly by cable talkers like Larry King, Greta Van Susteren and Dan Abrams and their interchangeable panels of legal analysts. The story has made the cover of People magazine and has been a constant fixture on talk radio, the tabloids, cable and some network newscasts. There were segments today on "Good Morning America" and the "Today" show. A Google search spits out more than 141,000 hits in 0.14 seconds. There's been a TV movie, "Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story" on USA Network, which garnered more 5 million viewers, the biggest audience for a USA telefilm in two years.

But if ever there was a story that divided the media into two camps, it's the Peterson case, which is expected to go to the jury this week after a trial now in its 23th week. "Serious" news organizations generally stayed away from the story. Even in television, there was a division.

Andrew Tyndall, who tracks network news coverage on his Web site, said the Peterson case has been one of the most heavily covered stories the last two years on daytime cable and the morning network shows -- but has received relatively light coverage on TV's evening news hours.

"What is quite apparent is the enormous difference between the network morning shows and their evening news shows," Tyndall said. "It's black and white."

Why have Laci and Scott created such interest -- and such a divide?

Here's what the news directors and media critics say: The victim was young, female, middle-class and pregnant -- and her husband appears to be the villain (or at least a cad; that he cheated on her is not in dispute). And once the public seized on the case, embraced the families' pain and the did-he-do-it aspects, it was a ratings boost that cost relatively little to cover and produced the endless back-and-forth of trial dissection by proxy that can keep a story running for months.

'Our lizard brains'
"Laci Peterson was the all-American girl," said Jim Hammer, a Fox News legal analyst and former prosecutor doing instant commentary on the Monday morning proceedings outside the courtroom. Hammer and a half-dozen other reporters stood ready to face the pool cameras that have made it easy for any media outlet to grab a quick sound bite or two.

After his moment was over, Hammer stepped away and said, "You know, there could be dozens of dead, poor African American women and nobody's ever heard of them, and I can understand how this trial says if you're white and pretty, you get more attention."

Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, decried the trial coverage as "pure white sugar, addictive and without nutrition."

"It's a sign of the times," Kaplan said. "There is no redeeming value. No morality play. No public policy fig leaf. It only goes to our most prurient interests. The trashiest novelists could not have come up with this. But we can't seem to help ourselves. It's our lizard brains."

The media critics say the Peterson trial has as its most immediate progenitor O.J. Simpson, whose capture and criminal and civil trials were a national obsession for more than 2 1/2 years. And after O.J., Kaplan said, there has been a long-running string of sensational stories: JonBenet Ramsey, Chandra Levey, Elizabeth Smart, Martha Stewart and, of course, the biggest tabloid story of all, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton.

"The Peterson trial has everything a tabloid outlet would want," Kaplan said, "except the blue dress."

"The first time I heard about this story, I said forget about it, it's nothing," said Chris Little, news director of KFI radio in Los Angles, the most popular AM talk station in Southern California. The station's Peterson correspondent, Laura Ingle, has been a constant presence on the Fox News Channel. "People have just been sucked into it. It's sort of turned into a whodunit novel, and people are just fascinated by that."

'You're in business to make money'
And, Little said, "we give the listeners what they want to hear as opposed to the stories that we think they should be interested in. If we don't sell what they want to buy, they're not going to come back. In radio you're in business to make money, not save the world. It is so we cover it."

Abrams, anchor of "The Abrams Report" on MSNBC, began covering the case when Laci Peterson was still missing. Since the trial began, Abrams has dedicated at least one of the six segments on his hour-long weeknight legal show to the Peterson case.

"I think anyone who says this is one of the most important cases of our day is either lying or fooling themselves," Abrams said, "but I think you can certainly justify coverage of this case because its interesting. I think anytime we cover a trial, we allow people to see how the criminal system works or doesn't work."

Abrams added: "We get people calling in all the time asking, 'Why do we spend so much time on the Laci Peterson trial?' I get that question. I think that's a fair question. My answer to that is it is an interesting case."

And he has a few words for what he calls "intellectual snobs":

"The intellectual snobs want to blame the media for covering stories that aren't 'important.' But you just don't find many cases where a 7 1/2-month pregnant woman is killed on Christmas Eve and her husband goes to trial. People can say it happens all the time but it doesn't."

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the attention a case like Peterson's draws actually changes the event itself. Defense lawyer Mark Geragos took the case only after it received significant media attention, knowing the case would be fodder for talk shows and cable news networks. That media attention allows Peterson to have a much higher-profile attorney than he would have been able to hire without all of the hoopla, Rosenstiel said.

"It has all the elements of a murder tabloid top story," Rosenstiel said. "The morning network shows and cable television have a need for a certain kind tabloid story where the facts of the story are very simple and don't change very much. It's like a soap opera: You can go away for months at a time and you can come back and plug right back into the plot."

Marlene Dann, senior vice president of daytime programming at Court TV, said the network's decision to preempt regular prime-time programming to cover the Peterson closing arguments is a first for a trial that has not allowed cameras in the courtroom. The channel is also offering free text-messaging when the verdict comes in.

"I think the media coverage is a reaction to what viewers want," Dann said. "I don't think we are creating the interest. We are reacting to the interest."

Staff writer Lisa de Moraes contributed to this article.