The Shame of the Airwaves

Mary A. Fischer is an award-winning magazine journalist and a former senior writer for GQ magazine.

Sensational murders are legitimate news stories, and they feed the public’s fascination with crime. But there comes a point when coverage becomes irresponsible and, finally, shameful.

We’ve been there before, but two weeks ago, when some TV pundits suggested that Scott Peterson’s quivering lower lip -- captured on camera at his arraignment -- was a manipulated gesture aimed at hiding his guilt, we reached a new low. Cable TV commentators, the leaders of the media lynch mob, have saddled up again. Putting emotion and ratings ahead of professionalism, they have unleashed the hounds of hysteria and pillaged the 5th Amendment’s guarantee of presumption of innocence.

Granted, the few facts known to date do not bode well for Peterson, who is accused of killing his wife, Laci, and the couple’s unborn son. But until the conclusion of his trial, it’s irresponsible for the media to publicly determine his guilt. We can speculate all we want among ourselves, but media commentators in positions to affect the lives and reputations of others should be held to a higher standard.

Lawyers, you’d think, would have ethical qualms about making prejudicial statements that might jeopardize a plaintiff’s fair-trial rights. But that hasn’t stopped many of them from jumping into the fray. On the day of Peterson’s arrest, California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer displayed shockingly bad judgment in announcing that the prosecution’s case was “compellingly strong,” and that convicting Peterson would be a “slam dunk.” The prediction was then widely reported. "[Peterson] looks to me like a poor liar,” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly remarked. “I’m sure he’ll get a high-profile lawyer who will try to punch holes. But it looks to me, as the authorities describe it, as a slam dunk.”


No evidence has yet been presented in court, and the preliminary hearing won’t be held for months. But some cable pundits have already concluded that Peterson is guilty. Fox News anchor Geraldo Rivera recently asserted on the air that Peterson’s “alibi stunk as badly as the [fertilizer] he sells.” He went on to call Peterson “a rat now caught in the trap.” San Francisco prosecutor Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, a Larry King regular, blithely said: “Do I think Scott Peterson is the person responsible? Absolutely.” Another King regular, former Atlanta prosecutor Nancy Grace, said: “In my mind, he seems guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The media have always had something of a feeding-frenzy mentality where crime is concerned. No speculation was too wild. But now, with the explosion of cable and the Internet, there’s that much more of it. With dozens of cable channels available at the touch of a remote, we may have more choices, but the level of professionalism on many talk shows is at rock bottom. “As with major league baseball,” writes Eric Alterman in his book “What Liberal Media?,” “the quality fell as the numbers rose.” As for what qualifies someone for this lucrative but dubious line of work, Alterman identifies “Q-ratings rather than knowledge or expertise” as the main criteria, along with “not being too fat or too ugly, the ability to speak in short sentences and a willingness to speak knowingly about matters about which one knows little or nothing.”

That about sums it up for many cable TV commentators. Guilfoyle Newsom, on leave from the San Francisco district attorney’s office, speaks authoritatively about the Peterson case, although she knows little more about it than her audience. A former lingerie model who seems to care more about the bright pink rouge and lipstick she wears on camera than she does about her credibility, Guilfoyle Newsom told viewers in all seriousness: “I think he again looks guilty because of his hair and goatee.”

Nor does Grace, a queen of high-drama histrionics, seem to worry much about her credibility. She tried many murder cases before becoming a TV personality, but one has to hope she didn’t make the same kind of unproven and wild accusations in the courtroom that she does on the air. On a recent show, arguing against the theory that Peterson may have accidentally killed his wife, Grace said with great indignation: “Why would you attach her feet to a concrete block and throw her in the bay?” Even King had to object. “Wait a minute,” he said, “you don’t know that he did that.”

Should Grace and other pundits be able to get away with making such incriminating statements without producing the evidence to support them? It’s a dangerous business. As one thoughtful caller to King’s show asked: “Has anyone stopped to think what the ramifications might be for Scott and his family if he’s found innocent?” Caught off guard by the question, prosecutor Guilfoyle Newsom thought for a moment and then replied: “Well, that’s certainly a possibility. Absolutely. And that’s why we have our justice system.”

A long list of high-profile criminal cases demonstrates why the media should show more restraint in their coverage, because the “system” and the reporters who cover it are sometimes mistaken. In 1996, Atlanta security guard Richard Jewell was falsely suspected of being the Centennial Olympic Park bomber -- and journalists led the charge. Recently, police in Colorado closed their investigation of the murder of JonBenet Ramsey without filing charges. But not before Ramsey family members were subjected to years of media accusations. In December, the defendants originally convicted in the Central Park jogger case were exonerated, and to date nearly 130 convicted criminals around the country have been freed based on new DNA testing.

In the late 1980s, I covered the McMartin Preschool sexual abuse trial and saw firsthand the damage biased reporting can inflict. Before the defendants even got to court, the media had already convicted them, calling the Buckey family “monsters” who ran a “nightmare nursery.” As it turned out, there was no credible evidence in the case and the Buckeys were acquitted, but not before their lives and reputations had been ruined.

Peterson has now hired lawyer Mark Geragos, which means the punches landed by the pundits will now be returned. Geragos will probably seek a change of venue because of the intense pretrial publicity. But that won’t necessarily fix the problem the commentators have created. As one California prosecutor said: “They may have so polluted people’s minds, there’s a real possibility in this case, and other high-profile cases in the future, you might never remove the taint, regardless which county you try the case in.”


Of course, there’s also a broader danger. A continuing failure by the media to police themselves could one day result in unwelcome abridgements of free speech.

I’m reminded of a scene in the movie “Frances,” in which the actress Frances Farmer (played by Jessica Lange) confronts a gossip columnist who’s been trashing her life and career. “You seem like an intelligent person,” she says, “can’t you find a more dignified way to make a living?”