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She rants, they rave

Special to The Times

Many television personalities attract a following, but not everybody gets a goat.

“He was dressed up in a Santa Claus outfit -- I’m not kidding -- with antlers attached to his head, like on the Grinch that stole Christmas. And of course, I took my picture with him. Many! And they drove him there, so what could I do? I had to take pictures with the goat. He’s addicted to [Court TV’s] ‘Closing Arguments.’ I can’t help that.”

The object of the goat’s affection: Nancy Grace, a Court TV veteran and now CNN’s newest Headline News star. Her 8 p.m. program is the showiest part of a recently unveiled prime-time lineup on a network that once consisted of anchors summarizing the news. In seven short weeks, Grace has boosted ratings and attracted attention, even as critics say she’s brought a Fox News-style tilt to the CNN brand.

The goat encounter took place in a media tent outside the courthouse where Scott Peterson was being tried for murder -- one in a docket of sensational trials that have catapulted the former Atlanta prosecutor to prominence as one of the cool medium’s hottest new voices.

Grace, who frequently tells viewers about her own encounters with violent crime and the justice system, has championed efforts to keep Terri Schiavo alive and written off Peterson as a sociopath who was “lying through his teeth.” Now, with her trademark roll of the eyes and pencil-waving rants about Michael Jackson’s child molestation trial, she’s reviving and personalizing on-air legal commentary.

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“OK! You’re still telling me that the jury was deadpan, no emotion?” she says, asking an on-location reporter to describe the latest bombshell testimony -- Jackson’s former security guard told the jury he saw pedophilic sex acts in late 1992 or early 1993. “I nearly fell off my chair, and I’m 2,000 miles away.”

One night, she ranted against Schiavo’s husband, Michael -- “He goes home to a nice dinner, while this woman has a feeding tube lying by the bed,” she said at one point -- then turned her fury on pop star Jackson, reading salacious excerpts from a decade-old court settlement.

Ratings success

Her self-titled show draws an average of 500,000 viewers each night, about half of Larry King’s 9 p.m. audience on the flagship CNN channel, and her 8 p.m. CNN competitor, Paula Zahn. But with a 155% gain in Headline News viewers at 8 p.m. compared to the same period a year ago, CNN’s sister network is declaring Grace a major success.

Headline News credits her with pulling it ahead of MSNBC in the cable news rankings, from fourth place to third.

“We get an enormous response from viewers, and even those who disagree with her can’t stop watching her. That’s her magic,” said one CNN executive who requested anonymity because the network did not want to acknowledge any negative feedback from viewers.

Headline News’ chief news executive, Kenneth Jautz, said Grace is helping the smaller network develop a new identity, with its foray into original prime-time programming, while also expanding the CNN brand.

“With the 24-hour format, across two channels, there’s room for different kinds of programming, and that’s what we’re doing” with Grace, he said. “There’s no one quite like her.”

And her prominence on cable television is growing. She still hosts a daytime show, “Closing Arguments,” on Court TV, and occasionally sits in for King on CNN’s top-rated interview show.

However, some see problems with her style of televised legal commentary -- a boom industry since the O.J. Simpson trial. She is widely seen as pushing the envelope further than most.

“I find their performances difficult to watch, even embarrassing,” said Jane Kirtley, a professor of law and journalism at the University of Minnesota. She sees Grace and other pro-prosecutorial firebrands as commentators who turn judicial cases into “sporting events.”

“As far as the TV medium is concerned, to say the victims don’t have a voice is disingenuous in the extreme. We have an array of sobbing victims and their lawyers telling the world how miserable their situation is.”

Fox News enjoys a ratings juggernaut in cable news, leaving rivals striving for second place. And Grace’s righteous presentation seems more akin to the Fox model, although CNN claims to ignore its competitor’s playbook.

She reacts personally to charges and countercharges, shouting down foils, many of them defense attorneys who champion the opposition or even some sense of restraint, in the name of constitutional protections.

On Thursday night, when discussing testimony by one of Jackson’s former guards and a former maid, Grace introduced New York defense attorney Jason Oshins with this comment: “Like this jury is going to care that they were later fired and had a lawsuit?”

Oshins asserted, “The prosecution obviously is enjoying the sensationalism of being able to graphically describe oral sex.”

Grace interrupted him, yelling: “That’s not true! That’s not true! Jason, no, no. I really resent that because you could say that every child molestation I ever prosecuted -- I didn’t enjoy the sensationalism, it made me sick!”

Victimhood is an escapable part of the Nancy Grace story. Her fiance, Keith Griffin, was murdered 25 years ago, two weeks before their wedding date. On TV, she often refers to her loss -- including during a lengthy 2003 interview on “Larry King Live” -- but then shuts down when a reporter asks about it. (Grace has never married and says she is now in a relationship.)

She rejects any suggestion that she may be seen as a vigilante, an aggrieved person bent on vengeance. “This is not about personal gratification,” Grace said sternly. Then she recalled a victims’ rights vigil she attended in Modesto a few weeks earlier.

“Several of Laci Peterson’s friends thanked me for speaking on their behalf, all the things they couldn’t say because they were under gag order,” she said with a whispery solemnity, referring to the murdered woman. “That really meant a lot to me.”

Quickly, she smacks away a reporter’s question about cops who lie on the stand, about how television has educated Americans about criminal justice, about how emotion may cloud judgment. Then, after a contentious half an hour of back-and-forth, she calls her questioner “my love” and says goodbye with a big hug and an invitation to her June book party.

This summer, Grace, 45, will seize a publishing opportunity to tell her life story. “We had such a sheltered upbringing, there was never really anything to be afraid of,” she says of her childhood in Macon, Ga., where the railroad worker’s daughter won 4-H medals for public speaking.

After her fiance’s 1980 murder, Grace arrived in the Fulton County courts with a law degree and determination, having given up her initial goal of becoming a professor of Shakespearean literature. She worked her way up from shoplifting cases to homicide trials. Although she often claims a perfect record, one of her many guilty verdicts was overturned by a higher court, which denounced her tactics.

She also caught the attention of the Atlanta media when a defense attorney filed a motion demanding that she wear longer skirts and tops that hid her decolletage, lest men on the jury be unduly influenced. The judge denied the motion.

Steve Brill, who founded Court TV, hired her in 1997 as a co-host for the short-lived “Cochran and Grace,” which pitted her against famed defense attorney Johnnie Cochran. Her Atlanta colleagues couldn’t help but be amused.

“She just seemed to think that her role was to attack Johnnie Cochran whenever he opened his mouth,” said Atlanta lawyer L. Lin Wood, who was a guest on the second show. “If he said, ‘Good evening,’ she attacked him and disagreed.”

Grace admits she “couldn’t stand” Cochran at first. “I knew that he got Simpson off and I believe Simpson’s guilty of double murder and of beating his wife for years and years. I think he’s a brute and I think, more important, the system failed and the bench failed ...,” she said, days after Cochran’s death. “And I held Johnnie responsible for that.... I was just horrible to him!”

The two gradually achieved a better rapport, thanks to Cochran’s unfailing congeniality, she said.

Still, her news colleagues attest that her animosity toward the defense is unwavering.

‘Honest’ opinion

Mostly, she presents a televised rush to judgment, according to Court TV colleague Jami Floyd, who fears such shouting matches are “witch hunts.”

“I rarely agree with what comes out of her mouth, but it’s hard not to like the person,” said Floyd, who has returned to Court TV’s midday programming after years at ABC News. “We have a lot of guests who come on and mimic Nancy.”

And she has seen less opinionated formats lose viewers. “Along come the Bill O’Reillys and the Nancy Graces. They have chosen a different path. The public responds to that because it’s honest,” Floyd said. “It’s much easier for people to identify with a victim than to identify with someone who has been wrongfully accused.”

Grace’s new colleagues at CNN have privately greeted her success with caution, although the recent emphasis by Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/U.S., on in-depth reporting has assured reporters and anchors that they won’t have to adopt a style like Grace’s -- for now.

Klein calls her a journalist, while his Headline News counterpart, Jautz, says she’s a host and legal commentator who will be confined to the coverage of courts and not breaking news.

Her ratings have slipped in recent days, but executives at Headline News and CNN say they aren’t worried. With viewers largely focused on the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II, they see it as a blip.

In fact, Henry Schleiff, chairman and chief executive of Court TV and a friend of Grace, worries about the growing pressures on her, particularly now that she’s the host of two cable shows -- and soon to launch a book tour.

“Most people are not prepared for the level of celebrity ... and she’s being torn in a lot of directions,” he said, “So, as a friend, I’m concerned about it a little bit. She’s not pacing herself, and we’ll deal with it. We’ll work with her.”

Grace, sitting in her CNN office at Time Warner Center, excuses herself to clear a cough deep in her chest. She reminds a visitor of her many fans, some of whom e-mail her during commercial breaks and online chats. Sometimes, these notes lead to hair and makeup adjustments.

Then, just as quickly, she discusses one of her darker days, when she quaked while watching herself talk about Griffin’s murder on “Larry King” -- an experience she says was neither cathartic nor edifying.

Her sadness flashed to anger as she recalled a talk-show appearance where a journalist (she uses air quotes) questioned her credentials -- and objectivity.

“Oh, my God! I let loose on her. Big time. Nasty,” Grace said, marveling at her own brashness. “Let me just say I don’t know if she needed to hear it, but she asked for it.”


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