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JOURNALISM MATTERS: The Casey Anthony story and the demise of U.S. media

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By Uwe Siemon-Netto

No self-respecting newsman will shed a tear over the demise of The News of The World, London’s reprehensible Sunday paper whose reporters acted  like a cross between KGB spooks and Mafia thugs for years. These weren’t journalists. Professional journalists don’t tap other people’s telephones; nor are professional journalists vile bigots stirring their readers’ hatred of foreigners, which was another News of the World specialty.

Spectators, media and law enforcement gather after hearing the jury's verdict acquitting Casey Anthony of first-degree murder at the Orange County Court House in Orlando, Florida July 5. / Reuters/Brian Blanco

So I suppose that we must be thankful to publisher Rupert Murdoch for putting an end to this depraved parody of the great British press tradition whose noble home used to be Fleet Street where I worked nearly half a century ago. That said, the world has just witnessed in an Orlando courthouse a massive case of media malpractice with infinitely wider ramifications than anything ever perpetrated by the News of the World ruffians.

The way cable television, including Mr. Murdoch’s Fox Broadcasting Company, covered Casey Anthony’s acquittal in her murder trial was a travesty. It violated all professional standards to which trial reporters in the civilized world were rightly held for as long there has been a free press, whipping up public emotions to the level of lynch mob frenzy in a manner that reminded me more of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s evil propaganda minister, than of Edward R. Murrow, the celebrated American radio reporter.

To be sure, Casey Anthony was not a sympathetic defendant. That she partied for 30 days after her daughter Caylee’s death seemed incomprehensible, at least to those mercifully unfamiliar with the phenomenon of dancing around the rim of a volcano in the face of impending doom.

What do contemporary media philistines know of the reaction of people who have witnessed unfathomable horror collectively or individually?  It is quite conceivable that after her child’s accidental death Casey Anthony just “snapped” and went wild. I am not saying that this was so, but having seen times of great calamity I could make a case for such a scenario.

Watching the media coverage of this trial took my breath away. Even before the jury retired, cable TV hosts and panelists, mainly lawyers, former prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys who dominate America’s airwaves nowadays, reached their verdict before tens of millions of viewers: guilty. Disgustingly, this was undergirded by observations of “experts” such as a specialist on body language who told us that Casey Anthony’s mimicry clearly suggested deep hate.

And when the jurors acquitted her, two Fox anchors, including a comely ex-judge, went apoplectic, as did former prosecutor Nancy Grace on another network. In his signature  exercise of populism, Bill O’Reilly did what contemporary media stars love to do: he made the audience retry the defendant. Result: 90 percent voted for a guilty verdict. Ninety percent: In real terms, that’s a hung jury. Prompted by O’Reilly, comedian Dennis Miller jested that every defendant was entitled to a jury of twelve of his or her peers; hence “this defendant is a moron who found a jury if twelve morons.”

Casey’s future was generally described as dire, and though the panelists by and large professed to be Christians, the option of repentance did not come up; the possibility that some competent pastor or priest might find his way to Casey to bring her the quintessential Christian message of forgiveness for whatever she might have done was not even mentioned. On the other hand, the whole world was told that she would probably wind up in the porno industry.

This revolting display of judgmental self-righteousness was punctuated by perfunctory references to the assumed superiority over the American legal system over anybody else’s legal system I wonder how much this type of media hyperbole might have contributed to an increase in anti-Americanism abroad. I love this country, but, American friends, this was definitely not your finest hour.

It became even more disgusting when U.S. television, which can be received around the world, showed the mob outside the Orlando courthouse demanding “justice for Caylee” and spewing hatred against the jurors who voted, presumably with great compunction, the way they had to vote in the case of reasonable doubt. In a democratic system, Court decisions must be respected; this is the first lesson I learned when I covered my first trial more than 50 years ago.

In a free society, journalists are not called to be jurors or judges. The rabble out in the streets has no such vocation either, regardless of its prejudice. Jurors and judges are called to be jurors or judges; they alone.

There was a time when this was the iron rule of journalism. That was a time when journalists practiced journalism, not thugs as in London or lawyers and hyperventilating anchors as in Orlando. I don’t know why courts allow these poseurs to displace rightful judgment in the eyes of the public, quite possibly kicking off a witch-hunt against an unpopular young woman. I don’t know why Mr. Murdoch and other cable TV bosses conspire in letting these people undermine free journalism, and with that, free society. I fear that they will come to regret this farewell to journalism as evidently Rupert Murdoch has come to regret that he allowed the rogue behavior by the News of the World reporters for far too long.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, is conducting a lecture tour related to the 50th anniversary of the erection of the Berlin Wall, which he covered as a young reporter of The Associated Press. For information, contact: uwesiemon@mac.com . He has been an international journalist for 55 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications.

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