Media Coverage of the Scott Peterson Case man allegedly slaughters his pregnant wife in cold blood! This sensational headline for the sensational case of Scott Peterson could very easily and ironically, accurately sum up the details of Peterson case. Peterson is accused of pretending to go fishing on Christmas Eve, killing his wife and his unborn son because of anxieties about becoming a father and because he desired his beautiful mistress more, and hiding the evidence. Then, he is accused of fleeing the investigating team by dying his hair, abandoning his mother and father in law during their hour of grief, and hiding out with his own parents.
AS such, the Peterson legal case in terms of reportage provides few challenges in terms of supposedly non-legitimate media outlets such as The New York Post, for example, or the celebrity driven show “Extra!” On TV. These media outlets might be challenged in attempting to make serious cases about popular media figures as Martha Stewart interesting and comprehensible — but not in the case of Scott Peterson’s domestic and legal woes. However, for a more respectable media outlet such as CNN, there is a different challenge — how to make a sensational ‘drum beat’ or daily court case, that the public is extremely interested in, seem like an object of the legitimate media?
One way to legitimize interest is to relate the Peterson case to history and make it seem important as a cultural event. “The crowd outside the Stanislaus County Courthouse then was eerily reminiscent of a time in our history when angry townspeople gathered in the village square to mete out justice with stones and pitchforks. Piercing shouts of ‘Murderer!’ could plainly be heard.” (Spilbor, June 11, 2004) The luridness, this prose suggests, is not in CNN, but in the reactions of those CNN is observing. Yet even CNN has at times had problems not resorting to cliches in unfolding this tale. This may partly be the nature of the tale, as on the surface it may seem difficult to relate the issues at stake to larger concepts of justice in the media.
Instead, even CNN has resorted to creating a narrative crime drama of the Peterson case. For instance, in recounting the reactions of different members of Laci Peterson’s family, the media outlet quoted one family member that; “Scott Peterson had seemed the perfect gentleman to his mother-in-law.” So, the article continues, “she [the mother-in-law] said she grew worried when he began behaving strangely the moment” he first reported his wife, Laci, had vanished. Thus, with dramatic foreshadowing after the fact, it is reported uncritically, long after Scott Peterson has been accused that Laci’s mother had concerns about accused son-in-law “and worries only grew after daughter’s disappearance,” the article continues. (June 8, 2004)
The article does not question if the woman’s memory might be colored by her son-in-law’s execution.
This article, combined with the other articles focusing on the victim’s family such as the stepsister’s alleged suspicions, and the anger of Laci’s father, also suggests a greater willingness to create a drama in CNN’s reporting slant, particularly when the victim’s family apparently endorses such a dramatic focus. In other words, although creating a narrative of murder and mayhem may seem crass, if the members of the victims family are not unwilling, in the text and texture of their own collective memories and dialogues with the media to ‘play along,’ even a legitimate media outlet might be willing to comply. This compliance also results in a perception of more favorable coverage of the family and their later version of events, though, and may compromise the nature of the justice system in the public eye regarding Scott Peterson’s guilt or innocence.
When it comes to the perception of lawyers in the media, however, little respect is given to Scott Peterson’s lawyers. For instance, conversely, media coverage of the Peterson defense team, particularly Mark Geragos, has been far less respectful. One article notes that this attorney of Michael Jackson and other well-known and well-prosecuted celebrities “basks” in the limelight, although it pays tribute to his persuasive skills as well, adding the lesser-known fact that Geragos won a $20 million settlement for the descendants of Armenians killed nearly ninety years ago in the Turkish Ottoman Empire. (“Peterson Attorney Basks in the Limelight,” May 31, 2004) Interestingly enough, this fact is not seen as evidence of Geragos’ humanity or even his Greek identity, but merely as testimony to his silver-tongued oratory.
In contrast, it is stressed that the “Peterson Prosecutor Shies from Cameras” (May 31, 2004) This seems to set up a kind of good vs. evil battle of the restrained prosecuting attorney vs. The Billy Flynn-like showman. What bearing does it have on the case; one reader might be tempted to ask, what is the temperament of these different lawyers? Shouldn’t it matter what the balance of evidence is, rather than how the lawyers conduct themselves towards the media in public and what their previous clients and legal past histories and other current clients are like? But CNN.com does not take this sort of an angle when reporting upon the lawyers of the case, perhaps preying upon a popular dislike of attorneys in the American popular media, particularly defense attorneys of well-known and relatively well-off clients.
Also, the different strategies of the lawyers, particularly the defense attorneys for Scott Peterson, are not viewed as ways of establishing a factual truth or legal basis of Peterson’s innocence or guilt, but as ‘strategies’ or ‘techniques’ to be analyzed. One June 9th article notes that “Peterson prosecution begins unconventionally” (June 11, 2004) in its strategy, as if there is a particular ‘game plan’ that murder prosecutions must adopt, that the prosecutor is cleverly circumventing. It takes careful note of the rhetoric deployed by Geragos as well. “Peterson baby born alive!” It cites. (June 3, 2004) CNN has also even used theatrical metaphors to discuss the case. “Curtain set to rise on Peterson trial: Defense accuses prosecution of withholding evidence.” (May 31, 2004)
The notion of a curtain rising falls in line with another technique in CNN’s own attempt to make its coverage seem legitimate again, in terms of the way that it depicts the trial as legitimate news — by covering the way the other media channels cover the trial, that is the way the supposedly ‘less legitimate’ media outlets cover the Scott Peterson trial, CNN feels it is making an important cultural commentary. That is, by making constant reference to the media circus and media frenzy surrounding the trial, CNN stresses that this is an important story. If for nothing else, it is a story about the public’s fascination with murder and infidelity — although why this idea is new news, is questionable.
Thus the more the media covers the event; the more media outlets can speculate what such coverage ‘says’ in a larger sense about the American media, about its cultural obsessions and tropes. By doing so, whatever media channel (and CNN is certainly not the only channel to do this) engaging in such behavior attempts to ‘stand outside’ or stand above the fray. However, it should be noted that most legitimate media stations attempt to do this, and indeed did so during other lurid media stories such as the Monica Lewinsky or the OJ Simpson legal story, when, after waxing eloquent upon impeachment many media outlets would cover the reporters covering the story, camping out outside of the accused individual’s home, or interviewing members of the accused defense team about the suffering of the alleged offender under the media gaze.
Yet a striking absence in the coverage of CNN is how other issues such as fetal viability and how the rights of the fetus pertain to the prosecution of different cases regarding pregnant women. Although this issue has been touched upon, it pales in significance to the legal and media drama surrounding the court itself. Thus CNN, an all-news network, rather than generating more speculative and reasoned coverage regarding a long-standing and unfolding event, seems simply to engage in heightening the drama rather than the issues that might arise from the case.
1.”Curtain set to rise on Peterson trial Defense accuses prosecution of withholding evidence.” (May 31, 2004) CNN.com. Retrieved on June 13, 2004 http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/05/31/peterson.trial.ap/index.html
2.”A day of shopping, at the spa: Slain wife’s final day before reported missing told to jurors.” (June 3, 2004) CNN.com. Retrieved on June 12, 2004 http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/06/03/peterson.trial.ap/index.html
3.”Geragos: Peterson baby born alive.” (June 3, 2004) on June 15, 2004 at http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/06/02/peterson.trial/index.html
4.Jeffrey Toobin: Peterson prosecution begins unconventionally. (June 11, 2004) CNN.com. Retrieved on June 14, 2004 http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/06/09/toobin.peterson/onindex.html
5.”Laci’s mother had concerns about accused son-in-law: Worries grew after daughter’s disappearance, she testifies.” (June 8, 2004) CNN.com. Retrieved on June 15, 2004 at http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/06/08/peterson.trial.ap/index.html
6.Laci’s step dad: Mistress photo was ‘last straw.’ According to Grantski: Fishing story was ‘fishy’ (June 9, 2004) Retrieved on June 15, 2004.
7.”Scott Peterson murder trial begins: Prosecution points to inconsistencies in his statements.” (June 1, 2004) CNN.com. Retrieved on June 15, 2004 at http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/06/01/peterson.trial/index.html
8.Spilbor, Joanna. (June 11, 2004) Why doubt over Scott Peterson’s guilt seems more reasonable. CNN.com. Retrieved on June 15, 2004 at http://www.cnn.com/2003/LAW/06/11/findlaw.analysis.spilbor.peterson/index.html
9.”Stepsister describes last sighting of Laci Peterson.”(June 7, 2004) CNN.com. Retrieved on June 15, 2004 at http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/06/03/peterson.trial/index.html
10.Suspicions from different stories Laci Peterson relative recalls conflicting tales from husband (June 10, 2004) CNN.com Retrieved on June 15, 2004 at http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/06/09/peterson.trial.ap/index.html
11.Ryan, Harriet. (June 10, 2004) “Dread of fatherhood could be Peterson’s motive, witnesses suggest.” CNN.com Retrieved on June 15, 2004 at http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/06/10/peterson.case/index.html
12.”Prosecutors ask jurors to use common sense to convict Scott Peterson: Trial over slain pregnant wife begins.” (June 2, 2004) CNN.com Retrieved on June 15, 2004 at http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/06/01/peterson.trial.ap/index.html
13.”Peterson attorney Mark Geragos lives in limelight.” (May 31, 2004) CNN.com Retrieved on June 15, 2004 at http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/05/31/peterson.geragos.ap/index.html
14.”Peterson prosecutor shies from cameras. (May 31, 2004) CNN.com Retrieved on June 15, 2004 at http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/05/31/peterson.distaso.ap/index.html
15.”Victim’s clothing key in Peterson case.” (June 4, 2004) CNN.com Retrieved on June 15, 2004 at http://www.cnn.com/2004/LAW/06/04/peterson.trial.ap/index.html
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