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Cable’s fall from Grace

ON any given evening, you could give even money on whether Bill O’Reilly or Nancy Grace best embodies the decline and decadence of cable television news.

It’s tempting to sigh wearily that there isn’t really a snarl, a gross oversimplification or a sneer’s worth of difference between them, and leave it at that -- but it’s not quite true.

Say what you will about O’Reilly, but he’s paid his journalistic dues, working his way up through a very solid career in local news, network correspondent assignments in the Falklands and El Salvador and a stint anchoring a TV magazine show. That kind of experience informs your work on unspoken levels and probably helps explain the flashes of independence that keep his show on Fox News from being entirely predictable.

Grace, on the other hand, has no journalistic background whatsoever. Even her employers at the once reliable and now lamentable CNN Headline News are careful to call her simply the “host” of the rhetorical free-fire zone they have created for her. (It’s the kind of programming decision that probably would have been forestalled by a slightly more expansive reading of the pandering statutes.) Grace’s standing to badger, fawn, scold and grimace her way through 60 minutes of Time Warner’s airtime every weeknight rests on just two credentials, which she endlessly repeats: She once worked as a prosecutor in Atlanta and she is a “crime victim” whose fiance was murdered 27 years ago.

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As it turns out, both credentials are a little crumbly around the edges.

When it comes to Grace’s record as a Fulton County prosecutor, CNN Headline chooses to overlook the fact that, since she became a broadcaster, a federal appeals court and the Georgia supreme court have overturned three of the convictions she obtained as DA and, in each instance, cited her unethical conduct.

This week, the New York Observer reported that Grace’s frequently repeated account of the tragedy that made her “a crime victim” doesn’t quite comport with the facts. Her version of the event and its legal aftermath notwithstanding, it turns out that Grace’s fiance, Keith Griffin, was not the victim of random robbery-murder, but instead was killed by a “mildly retarded” former co-worker disgruntled over his recent firing. His defense attorney did not, as Grace frequently has alleged, put up a wrong-guy-I-wasn’t-even-there defense, since the killer confessed the night he was arrested. He did not, as far as can be determined, have the long criminal record Grace has said she was told he had. His jury convicted the killer within hours not days, as Grace has said. Despite the impression she has given, the prosecutors sought the death penalty, but the jury gave the defendant life in prison because of his retardation. He never, as Grace has insisted repeatedly, appealed his conviction.

In a statement e-mailed Thursday to The Times, Grace responded, “Since Keith’s murder in 1979, I may have confused details surrounding the event, and I regret that. His death was so traumatic, to both Keith’s family and to me, that I cannot begin to describe it in words. Much of that period of my life remains a blur in my mind and heart. Through the years, the experience of learning more details surrounding Keith’s murder has been painful in itself, and once again I’m reminded of the pain that crime victims suffer every day.”

Fair enough, but nothing about this trauma has prevented Grace from drawing it like a gun every time there’s a chance to gain sympathy or rhetorical advantage on her program. Moreover, these are hardly the kinds of details of which a professional prosecutor is likely to allow themselves to remain unclear. And finally, it’s a strikingly fortuitous coincidence that all the facts Grace has remembered incorrectly tend to enhance the dramatic effect of her victimization.

It’s distasteful to parse somebody else’s tragic experience. Unfortunately, when somebody has tried to transform a personal trauma into a public credential, there’s no way to avoid it. As Grace recently told USA Today, “If I have an appeal, I think it’s that ... I’m not pretending to be anything but a crime victim who went to law school and tried a lot of cases.”

From serious to desperate

For people who think serious journalism is to be valued, this has been a melancholy week, marked by the passing from the scene of two authentic visionaries. One was The Times’ former publisher, Otis Chandler -- who, along with two equally visionary editors, Nick Williams Sr. and Bill Thomas -- transformed this paper into one of international standing and showed print journalism the way forward in an era increasingly saturated with television. The other was CNN founder Ted Turner, who finally quit Time Warner’s board in disgust, severing all ties to the cable news operations he virtually willed into being in the face of universal skepticism and outright scorn.

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Turner has a loose lip and an unsteady personality, but he never wavered in his belief that serious news has a place on television. The same cannot be said of the corporate apparatchiks now running CNN and CNN Headline and cringing before Fox News’ success. They’re the ones who have unleashed Grace on their Headline network and defaced CNN’s regular report with things like Jack Cafferty’s bizarre and incoherently histrionic intrusions into the afternoon news and the increasingly demagogic Lou Dobbs’ second rate imitations of a Howard Beale rant.

These desperate acts have been triggered by CNN’s inability to come even close to matching Fox in the ratings. The commercial genius of Rupert Murdoch’s network, of course, resides in Roger Ailes’ intuition that the talk radio model could be transferred to television, thereby avoiding the expense of real reporting while cultivating viewers with a taste for conservative partisanship and, more important, entertainment. Murdoch and his accomplices clearly understand that one of the more disturbing characteristics of the current cultural moment is the insistence of so many people that they have an unalienable right to be entertained during their every waking moment, no matter what they’re doing. (It’s probably only a matter of time until patients require that their heart surgeons tap dance into the operating room.)

We verge these days on becoming a trivial people.

In a talk to a college audience in Oregon this week, former CNN anchor Aaron Brown mused that cable news has proceeded from promise to decadence because “it is only giving consumers what they want.” According to the Ashland Mail Tribune’s account of his remarks, Brown said that “CNN spent a fortune covering the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. After two weeks, ratings fell to normal levels. The Fox news channel channeled their dollars into a story about American teenager Natalee Holloway disappearing in Aruba. Fox, of course, cleaned up in ratings and revenue.”

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Thus, we have Nancy Grace, indefatigable pursuer of missing white women and “host” of a show that -- over the past year -- has boosted CNN Headline’s audience in her time slot by 181% to just over 600,000. That’s still roughly 1.5 million fewer viewers than O’Reilly has for cable news’ top-rated show.

The conventional response to all this is simply to shrug and attribute it all to the irrepressible venality of frightened corporate executives. The problem there is that you can’t have opportunists without opportunity.

Brown put his finger on the responsibility for creating that opportunity this week, when he said, “In the perfect democracy that I believe TV news is, it’s not enough to say you want serious news. You have to watch it.”

Let’s do something really entertaining. Let’s imagine that the real -- well, really fictional -- Howard Beale were presented with Grace, O’Reilly and the whole wretchedly dispiriting direction of cable news. It’s hard to envision him saying anything, except:

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“I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell:

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”


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