Objective news coverage? Most grownups acknowledge that there is no such thing. More discerning members of the public realize that there never was such a thing. Always, a decision is made about what constitutes coverage-worthy news. One story is up, another is down; one story is in, another is out. When newspapers were the only game in town, decision-making was crucial. Each day, a limited number of column inches were available on the front page above the fold, and a limited number of total pages could be printed.
With electronic media, the possibility exists to cover extremely large numbers of different stories. Instead, TV networks provide tediously recycled identical pictures and words ad nauseum. Despite so much potential for variety, all that energy goes into repetition. Given the immense amount of airtime and (even today) pages of print that need to be filled, how crazy is it that we get the same stories over and over? It is a real head-scratcher of a paradox.
Chosen for the spotlight
In late December of 2002, Laci Peterson went missing. In 2005, her husband Scott Peterson was sentenced to death by lethal injection (currently under appeal). The Peterson case has been reported on in exquisite detail for years. Women are murdered by their male partners every day of the week, and except as units in statistical aggregations, we never hear about most of them. What exempted this particular death from obscurity and made it headline fodder? How, in the first place, did it become capital-N news?
For starters, all the principals were photogenic, economically upscale white folks from California, our national headquarters of the bizarre. The victim disappeared on Christmas Eve, sending the pathos-meter through the roof. Thousands of volunteers helped with the search, and a half-million dollar reward was offered for Laci’s safe return. And… drum roll, please… she was eight months pregnant.
This writer’s knowledge of the Laci Peterson murder was gleaned from dozens of online sources, the specifics of which are, alas, unavailable for reasons too tedious to explain. One link is given to represent them all, and possibly leads to everything else that was ever available. However, the absence of source notes in no way invalidates the underlying premise. In fact, it proves an important point. When this case blew up in the media, a person waiting to pay for groceries could savor every nuance of it, just from glancing at the headlines of tabloid publications.
No blogger anywhere is advised to follow this example. Every blogger is urged to do as Katie McCaskey says:
Research facts to support a post that enlightens. Then attribute the hell out of it.
Use direct quotes and specific figures whenever possible. Cite and clearly link to sources. Be transparent about your associations.
Back to the story
There was, of course, also the blonde. There had to be a blonde. News consumers were spellbound by the sheer tackiness. Here’s how it went down:
- Scott, who at the time still has a very much alive and expectant wife, lies to single mom Amber Frey (the blonde) that he’s never been married, and meanwhile solicits the help of a biker gang to kidnap and/or kill Laci.
- Several weeks later, he fesses up to Amber that oh, by the way, there is a wife, who is in fact all over the news right now. The one everybody is out looking for.
- Scott hires a truck accident lawyers to get help for the truck accident he had and cruises to the Bay to moodily stare out over the water where the bodies will eventually surface. To assuage his loneliness he adds several triple-X channels to his cable TV service. A search of the Peterson storage locker reveals the couple’s wedding album reposing in a wastebasket.
- Officially, Laci is still only missing, but Scott sells her car and puts their house on the market. Amber lets the police record her phone conversations with the bereaved husband.
- In mid-April, three-and-a-half months after the disappearance, the body of a pre-born child is found, followed the next day by Laci’s own headless, legless, and mostly armless corpse.
- Scott, in disguise, is apprehended heading out for Mexico — carrying a big wad of cash, camping gear, four cell phones, other people’s IDs and credit cards, and a supply of Viagra.
- Some woman sues People magazine for not leaving her out of the photos of Amber she sold to the magazine. Porn entrepreneur Larry Flynt rejects a portfolio of Amber nude shots, on the grounds that his customers would demand their money back, implying a certain lack of attractiveness on her part. Amber sues the photographer for $6 million.
- As if the sleaze factor weren’t already off the chart, the imprisoned accused double murderer is inundated with love letters from female nutjobs.
- Because Laci’s body was dismembered at the joints like poultry, and the baby appears to have been strangled and cut, the defense tries to float a satanic ritual theory.
- Scott admits to several affairs during his marriage, providing a great defense argument. He didn’t kill his wife for any of those others, so why would he kill her for Amber?
There have been endless comparisons with other cases involving missing persons who are not pregnant white women. The cost of the investigation and prosecution went into the millions even before the appeal got underway. The five finders of the bodies eventually shared a $50,000 reward. A $350,000 reward was offered for proof that Scott did not kill his wife. Typically, Amber just couldn’t stay out of the news. At one point, it was disclosed that the poor sucker who had been paying her child support for four years wasn’t the kid’s father after all.
Like any scandal worthy of the name, the Peterson mess also functioned to divert public attention from Iraq, etc. It was the ancient Roman formula for keeping the peasants docile — give ‘em bread and (media) circuses. The case spun off a galaxy of separate stories: conflict over media parking privileges around the courthouse; the students who falsified survey results; the reliability of GPS technology, and on and on.
Unlike some media circuses, this one went on to cause serious legislative fallout. Scott Peterson was convicted of two murders. This signaled that Conner Peterson was not a fetus, but a slain baby. By late 2005, the federal government and 30 states had passed versions of fetal homicide statutes, naming their new laws after Laci and/or Conner. Early in 2007, in (not surprisingly) Maricopa County, Arizona, the first double-murder conviction was obtained against a man who killed his girlfriend and their unborn child.
This all went differently than many activists would have preferred. Fetuses got all the attention. Routine, ongoing, frequent, ubiquitous violence against women got almost none. But the most far-reaching legal impact has been agitation to reverse Roe v. Wade, because if a third party can be convicted of murder for killing a fetus, how can a woman be allowed to abort one?
Image by Phil Roeder.