Without getting into the personal opinions on the outcome of the Casey Anthony trial, I thought I would chime in on another controversial angle around the nation’s most recent hot-button topic… the objectivity of the media. As someone who has spent the last 20 years working with media members and have made close friendships with some of those, recent events struck a chord with me.
No one in the media has been more outspoken during the trial than HLN’s Nancy Grace. Now, before discussing her take on the situation, let’s talk about what HLN stands for. Headline News. That’s what the network was branded after it was originally launched as CNN2 in 1982. It became CNN Headlines News, which has since been shortened to just HLN (because, well, that’s what we do with everything in today’s society; we acronym it).
For a long time, it was most popular in… airports. It was the station that was on in most airport terminals with the latest breaking news and little feature snippets from its parent network, CNN. It was a 30-minute newscast that also included finance updates, sports and lifestyle segments at designated times inside of that 30-minute cycle. If you turned it on in your house… well, it was usually buried in the cable listings, so very few ever did.
But in 2005, the channel began to introduce personalities into its prime-time slots and called it “Headline Prime.” They had replays of Larry King’s show the next day and that’s when Nancy Grace was first introduced into the fold. Ironically, a former prosecutor herself, Grace wrote a book around that time called “Objection! — How High-Priced Defense Attorneys, Celebrity Defendants, and a 24/7 Media Have Hijacked Our Criminal Justice System”.
In the inside cover of the book is the following description… “A passionate victims’ rights advocate and outspoken critic of the often circus-like atmosphere surrounding high profile cases, Grace never holds anything back as she addresses the most critical issues at the heart of the criminal justice system.”
Keep that in mind for a minute.
Over the last several months, HLN has devoted its coverage nearly non-stop to the recently completed trial of Casey Anthony. The Orlando Sentinel recently reported that the network’s rating have risen 85 percent over the last year due to Grace’s success from the coverage. AOL went so far as to report that when the trial started in late May, HLN was mired in a ratings slump, facing a double-digit dip in ratings year-to-year. In the words of AOL, “Grace’s passion for the case became the channel’s way of ending its slump.”
In the month of June, check out these ratings numbers (courtesy of TheWrap.com):
o Total Viewers in Primetime: Up 86% to 982,000
o Age 25-54 Viewers in Primetime: Up 79% to 292,000
o Nancy Grace’s Total Viewers: Up 85% to 1.5 million
o Nancy Grace’s Cable Ranking: No. 2 (behind FoxNews’ Bill O’Reilly)
o Twitter followers for @HLNTV: Up 195% to 49,600
o Twitter followers for @NancygraceHLN: Up 564% to 119,000
Most nights in her coverage, Grace never used Casey Anthony’s name, calling her only “Tot Mom”… a clear sign of her disdain and, in my mind, an indication that objectivity had gone out the window. Remember, this was a person who was said to be tired of the media circus around court cases.
At the conclusion of the case, Anthony’s lawyers didn’t name names, but were clearly critical of certain media members and their subjectivity that seemed to be included in their coverage.
Diane Dimond, a longtime TV and print investigative journalist and a frequent guest of Grace’s during the trial, summed it up very nicely with this quote:
“Cheney Mason (Anthony’s attorney) was taking a slap at both his own colleagues and the media and I think he’s got a point. But Nancy (Grace) is an attorney, not a journalist, and network executives should label these shows and people on them more properly.”
There is no doubt that both HLN and Nancy Grace have benefitted tremendously from this case over the last several months. Along with the aforementioned ratings numbers, a Google search of “Nancy Grace” picked up 28,600 blog hits less than 24 hours after the verdict. The question I raise – and again, this is regardless of how anyone feels about the outcome of the case – while Grace will say she did it in her voice for victims’ rights, did they do it at the price of a network’s objectivity? Did they do it in the name of ratings?
And clearly, if so, that price may extend to more media outlets than just their own since other networks quickly ran to cover the story when Grace’s ratings on HLN began to spike. Although, in yet another irony, O’Reilly was quick to criticize HLN’s 24/7 coverage of the case in the same show that he and Geraldo Rivera (yeah, that Geraldo Rivera) got into a shouting match over the outcome.
Any way that you choose to look at it, you can’t help but notice that at the center of it is the author of a book with a title that includes the words…“a 24/7 Media Have Hijacked Our Criminal Justice System”.