Fwd: Why can't we stop watching

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      [Boston Globe Online: Print it!]


    Why can't we stop watching

    By Diane Asadorian, 1/20/2002


    Louise Woodward. Pamela Smart. Susan Smith. The Menendez brothers. You
    know who they are.

    Now add to the list Thomas Junta. Their criminal cases shared a common
    path: starting in obscurity, soaring in public interest, and ending in
    notoriety amid torrid debates around the nation's water coolers. Their
    once-unknown names now resonate, some in our consciousness, others just
    below the surface.

    Thousands of cases are decided in criminal courts every month. The vast
    majority of such prosecutions, no matter how horrific the charges,
    remain mired in obscurity, perhaps prompting one-column headlines deep
    in newspaper metro sections, or 15-second videotape clips with
    voice-overs on the nightly local news.

    But a few magnetic criminal cases clearly take on lives of their own,
    racing toward Page 1, ''Larry King Live,'' eventually even publishers or
    movie studios.

    Sentencing in the Junta ''hockey dad'' case is scheduled for Friday,
    when the national media will swarm the Middlesex County Courthouse once
    again to record the final scene. Meanwhile, the shocking
    child-molestation case of former priest John J. Geoghan played out in
    the same courthouse last week, resulting in another guilty verdict. That
    case, which drew strong regional interest, attracted little national
    attention despite its explosive nature and its debate-spawning issues.
    The contrast is unsettling. Why do some cases draw the media and the
    public while others don't? And why do some trials rivet the public, even
    as they often repel at the same time?

    ''Some trials just hit a nerve,'' said Barry Schindel, executive
    producer of the hit network courtroom drama ''Law and Order.'' Schindel
    should know: The series had a fictionalized hockey dad murder case more
    than a year ago. He says that subjects are often taken from the
    headlines: ''These cases are usually representative of what's going on
    in society today. They represent an undercurrent.''

    Whether a case is of public import does not necessarily make it a draw.
    There are far more important cases that present more challenging legal
    issues that just don't captivate the mass audience.

    Dan Abrams, chief legal correspondent for NBC News and anchor of ''The
    Abrams Report'' on MSNBC, says, ''When an issue emerges of great
    interest to a lot of people, that's still not enough. Even with those,
    it has to be a close case. An open and shut case is not as interesting
    as one where people will be on both sides.'' The dynamic attention of
    the case - did he or didn't he - is as much a part of the attraction as
    the importance of the subject matter.

    When a case clicks, the appeal is sweeping. Even media insiders can get
    caught up in the latest courtroom saga. ''With the Junta case, we found
    ourselves talking about the case, not just as journalists, but as news
    consumers and parents,'' said Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News. He
    cited the Woodward ''baby-shaking nanny'' case, which occurred in Newton
    and prompted a massive media swirl, as having similar resonance.
    ''Everyone worries about who cares for their children,'' he said.

    Beyond the matter of how people behave, there is the matter of how they
    tick. That was the appeal of the Pam Smart case, in which a southern New
    Hampshire high school teacher was convicted of recruiting students to
    kill her husband. It was a case that eventually prompted a major movie.

    ''Trials are about people at their worst,'' said Michael Shapiro, a
    journalism professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of
    Journalism. ''I covered courts for a long time. Housing court is not
    particularly interesting, but trials are interesting when you have
    people's motives revealed. Then it is like watching a novel with
    interesting characters, with the occasional interruption of an expert

    ''There's something Hitchcockian about them,'' Shapiro continued.
    ''Usually they are about ordinary people who find themselves in
    extraordinary situations, or they are extraordinary people brought
    low.'' For the former, think Bernhard Goetz, the N.Y. subway shooter, or
    Woodward. For the latter, think O.J. Simpson, Leona Helmsley, Patty
    Hearst, William Kennedy Smith, and Robert Downey Jr.

    ''We have celebrity or quasi-celebrity cases,'' Abrams agreed. ''And
    then we have the human interest story with a really interesting
    confluence of somewhat unpredictable factors. It is more than who is on
    trial.'' Heyward said of such a case: ''It is the quotidian event which
    we can all identify with, in an exaggerated form with tragic

    Like gripping novels, the plots of such cases are intriguing, the
    characters complicated, and the relationships curious. The cases have a
    simple, easily grasped structure: a beginning, a middle, and an end.
    Moreover, the jury system allows us to participate on an intellectual
    level, to replicate in our own minds and with our own friends what the
    verdicts should be. Schindel, a former defense attorney, said, ''Legal
    cases and legal dramas offer you the ability to decide who you think is
    right or wrong.''

    Some crime stories that one might expect to register with the public
    simply don't because they lack the necessary subtlety. Los Angeles
    psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, asked why the execution of Timothy
    McVeigh, who was put to death last June for the Oklahoma City bombing,
    didn't register with the public the way Junta or Woodward did, said,
    ''He bombed a building. We didn't connect him to the personal stories.''
    Lieberman said it is a case's mystery and soap opera quality that often
    holds our interest, rather than the seriousness of the crime.

    One thing appears certain. There will be more such cases emanating from
    ever-more-obscure courtrooms. With network, cable, and local television
    stations all looking for programming, trials in the end not only provide
    justice. They provide news and entertainment at low cost. According to
    Tom Wolzien, media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York,
    these cases get covered in part because ''They are cheap, diversionary
    programming. Talk is cheap, and dramatic talk is cheaper.''

    Wolzien, a former news producer at NBC, said, ''This is journalism by
    exception. It is making journalistic judgments based on what is outside
    the norm.'' And, because news organizations take their cues from one
    another, he said of the Junta case, ''Who knows if people actually
    wanted to watch it? But for a few days there was no getting away from

    Philip Balboni, president of New England Cable News, thought his network
    gave the Junta case an appropriate amount of coverage, given that his is
    a 24-hour regional news channel. However, he was surprised when The New
    York Times ran Junta's photo above the fold on the front page. The
    verdict also made the front page of the Times. Since the case resulted
    only in a conviction of involuntary manslaughter, the key factor in its
    placement was likely its drama and its centrality as a topic around the
    national coffeemaker.

    Marlene Dann, senior vice president of daytime programming at Court TV,
    which lives off such fare, outlined the cable network's process for
    choosing cases. A ''trial tracking unit'' meets weekly to review
    upcoming cases and examines the issues, witness lists, and lawyers
    involved. The meeting is open to the whole company. Dann said she knew
    instantly that the Junta case would resonate. ''I wasn't surprised, just
    because of the issues involved and who the witnesses were. With the
    hockey dad, I knew right away that it would generate a lot of

    With Junta about to be sentenced, where will the focus turn next? Court
    TV moved to televise the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th
    hijacker in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but a judge ruled Friday
    against the network's request. Still, there's always another prospect.
    Schindel thinks we'd rather watch what happens to American Taliban
    member John Walker in the courtroom - and on our television screens -
    than we would Moussaoui, who may have been a far bigger player in
    targeting America.

    He's likely right about that, yet there'll be only one sure way to find
    out. Stay tuned.

    This story ran on page G1 of the Boston Globe on 1/20/2002.
    Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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