TV's top story -- a new suspect in the decade-old murder of 6-year-old beauty princess JonBenet Ramsey -- affects very few people.
In a media system dominated by entertainment conglomerates, it's no accident that we're served up a steady stream of "top" stories saturated by sex, violence and celebrity: OJ, Princess Di, JonBenet, JFK Jr., Condit/Levy, child abductions (especially upper-middle class blonde girls), Laci Peterson, the runaway bride, the missing teen in Aruba, etc.
Let's face it: The Murdochs and Disneys and Time Warners and GEs that own our media system much prefer a nation of mindless consumers and spectators over a nation of informed, active citizens. They like the fact that avid TV viewers know all the intimate details about the JonBenet or OJ murder cases -- and almost nothing about how big corporations lobby against middle-class interests in Washington.
Best of all to TV news managers, tabloid stories are cheap to cover, especially when pundits or legal experts can fill up hours of time with their (often ridiculously wrong) speculation. And these are stories that can't possibly offend powerful forces in Washington, or advertisers.
In the summer of 2001, as terrorists went about plotting the 9/11 attacks, cable news was obsessed with one and only one huge story: the disappearance of D.C. intern Chandra Levy. She'd had an affair with Congressman Gary Condit, who was wrongly accused over and over on cable news of involvement in the murder. Levy was the apparent victim of random street crime.
In 2002, I spent hours on-air at MSNBC as the "Beltway sniper" terrorized the D.C. area with long-range rifle attacks. The one thing most experts were sure about in the weeks of speculation is that the culprit was white, and he was a loner. Wrong and wrong. There were two culprits, both black.
It was the O.J. Simpson trial of 1995 that had changed TV news forever. That's when management saw that "news," turned into soap opera, could actually compete with entertainment programming for ratings . . . and was much cheaper to produce.
The next year, after MSNBC and Fox News had launched to compete with CNN, JonBenet was murdered. TV news thought it had its next O.J.-type story, and the kiddie beauty pageant footage -- looking creepily like kiddie-porn -- began to run in an endless, exploitative loop. But the JonBenet case lost steam when no one was charged. The circus-trial never materialized. Thankfully, Monica Lewinsky burst on the scene and cable news went virtually all-Monica-all-the-time until Clinton's impeachment acquittal in 1999.
The Clinton acquittal left cable news in the doldrums again. But wait, a JonBenet grand jury was now stirring in Boulder. By October 1999, indictments were expected. For cable news, the long-coveted trial and ratings bonanza were finally at hand. All eyes were on Boulder. The prosecutor stepped to the mike and announced the grand jury's conclusion: There was insufficient evidence to charge anyone.
It was a crushing setback for TV news. I went on the air on Fox News and joked that we could expect "mass suicides" among cable news executives. My prediction was unfortunately wrong.