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Casey Anthony Is Acquitted; the Media Trial Is Just Beginning

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You could have watched the Casey Anthony verdict on another channel besides HLN,* but that would have been like watching election returns on ESPN.

Other networks covered the trial, some more fervently than others — notably TruTV, formerly known as Court TV. But it was HLN that threw itself into the trial with lust and bloodlust, that captured (and inflamed) the emotional tone of the child-murder case, scoring mammoth ratings in the process.

And when the Florida jury returned a not-guilty verdict (on the major charges) in the murder of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony, it was HLN, with its head anchor/inquisitor Nancy Grace, that voiced its shock passionately.

Video: Casey Anthony Verdict
Under Grace, the former prosecutor with a righteous voice and burning glare, HLN’s coverage had a clear subtext: Casey Anthony was guilty, and retribution was due. (Maybe not even subtext: the channel’s coverage was branded “JUSTICE FOR CAYLEE,” with a picture of the murdered girl flashing constantly onscreen.) Grace took over coverage as the verdict became due at 2:15 p.m. E.T. and was almost taunting toward the defendant, whom she had dubbed Tot Mom. (“Tot Mom is about to chew her fingers off,” Grace said, observing edgy Anthony’s nail biting.)

When the not-guilty verdict came in, there was a brief, chilling silence, punctuated only by the paper-shuffling sounds of the courtroom. Afterward, Grace was measured but searing about the fact that Caylee’s death “will go unavenged.” Her description of the girl, in the moments after the verdict, was lurid, emotional and almost novelistic:

[Caylee was] found just 15 houses from where Tot Mom puts her head on the pillow every night, her body decomposed, nothing but skeleton, gnawed on by animals … in a trash dump that used to serve as a pet cemetery. Little Caylee thrown away like she was trash. And now and for the rest of our coverage, Caylee will be in our hearts, regardless of what this jury or anyone else does or says. This is about 2-year-old Caylee.

Though much of the weeks of coverage have been about Nancy Grace. Let me be clear: I’m not judging the verdict or Casey Anthony’s guilt or innocence. I didn’t sit in the courtroom or cover the trial. But the success of HLN and Grace over the past several months, going wall-to-wall Casey Anthony, is proof that in trial-TV today — much like in prime-time cable news — there is no ratings penalty for taking a side.

Viewers may want information and analysis, but at least a good chunk of them also want to hear their opinions and judgments declaimed passionately, and Grace gives them that with gusto and icy fury. Let the rest of the press cover the American justice system; Grace covers the American vengeance system.

In the aftermath of the verdict, the tenor of HLN’s analysis was plain: How did this guilty woman go free? “I cannot give any other explanation,” reporter Jane Velez-Mitchell said, “other than human beings are not rational.”

It wasn’t just HLN, though, that seemed to be operating on the presumption of guilt. Analysts called Anthony a sociopath and a “monster,” and even straight-news pundits seemed to have a clear sense of where they thought the trial was going; on ABC, George Stephanopoulos said that “jaws dropped” in the studio at the verdict.

Now, the press is not the legal system. Journalists are bound to be fair, not to presume innocence until proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But at minimum, the general shock over the verdict raises the question of whether the press was discounting weaknesses in the prosecution. And combined with the collapse of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case — whatever you think about his behavior and character — it shows a press quick to jump to conclusions, if not about actual guilt, then at least about guilty verdicts.

And really, will anyone lose readers or viewers in the long run for it? Doubtful. In the short run, even less so. A guilty verdict would have given Grace, HLN and company something to chew over for a day or two. But not guilty? As Grace notes, there is no recourse — and therefore, a grievance, anguish and recriminations that will never end.

After the Tuesday verdict, there were a lot of comparisons to the 1994–95 O.J. Simpson case, but I don’t buy them beyond a point. Yes, there was a shocking not-guilty verdict, and yes, there were a lot of people watching. But there were not the larger cultural repercussions about celebrity, privilege and race, or the sense of two Americas seeing the trial, and the world, with different eyes.

Of course, the Casey Anthony trial had its own cultural valences, about motherhood and Anthony’s reported lifestyle of partying, among other things. And like the O.J. case, there was talk about the meta-influence of the media circus. Immediately after the verdict, defense lawyer Cheney Mason decried the “media assassination” of his client.

But for TV producers, it will be close enough. There will be arguments, there will be anger — and, despite the jurors’ initial refusal to talk, there will certainly be jousting for morning-show and newsmagazine bookings. And Grace sounds like she has outrage enough to last her for months. A couple of hours after the verdict, she responded to a report that the defense team was in a bar having a champagne toast. “You know what? I’m not a preacher,” she said, sounding like a preacher:

I’m not a rabbi. But there’s something wrong with that. Because Caylee — is dead. And her body decomposed, 15 houses away from where the Anthonys put their head on the pillow every night, every day searching, searching for this little girl. [Deep breath.] Now I know, I know it is our duty as American citizens to respect the jury system. And I do, believe me I do … But I know one thing. As the defense sits by and has their champagne toast after that not guilty verdict? Somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight.

The verdict may be in. But Nancy Grace’s prosecution is just beginning.

*Disclosure: HLN is a sister company of TIME in Time Warner, not that the coverage has made me immensely proud of that fact.

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