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Friday, August 18, 2006

A Child-Porn Soap Opera Wakes Networks from Slumber

TV's obsession with lurid cases is hardly new, but even London and Lebanon may be pressed to compete with JonBenet
by Alan Freeman


For the three competing U.S. cable-news networks, desperate for viewers in the midst of the summer doldrums, the arrest in Thailand was like manna from heaven.

Suddenly, the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, which dominated the airwaves for much of the late 1990s, was back.

"It's soap opera, as news," said Jeff Cohen, a former cable television producer, pundit and author of Cable News Confidential, a memoir of his years in the industry.
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In a business driven by ratings, the return of the lurid decade-old child murder in Colorado has all the elements needed to boost audiences, he said.
"There's what seems to be a dysfunctional family, a murder mystery, sex," he said in an interview -- plus the chilling videotape of the six-year-old victim dressed as a beauty queen.

"A big selling point for her story was the almost kiddie-porn footage, where they'd have her in full makeup wearing a chintzy dress and prancing around."

Mr. Cohen said the suspect, teacher John Mark Karr, may actually have nothing to do with the crime. And yet, he noted, "It would be fitting if it's a guy involved in child pornography, because that's what cable news was thinly exploiting."

This U.S. networks' obsession with crime and sex is nothing new. In the slow months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, cable news was dominated by the disappearance and death of Washington intern Chandra Levy and the suspicions surrounding congressman Gary Condit, with whom she had an affair.

"That guy Condit was repeatedly accused of murder by people who were not held accountable for accusing a completely innocent guy," Mr. Cohen said.

"The only crime he committed was adultery."

There has been no shortage of major international news in recent weeks, but those stories are costly to cover for the networks and may not actually attract additional viewers the way a crime story does.

"This is ideal August news coverage," said Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, referring to the JonBenet case.

"In the summertime, people are looking for things other than terror in London or what's going on in Lebanon or Israel. In a really macabre sort of way, it's a diversion. . . . If you look at American television and see shows like CSI and Cold Case, there's obviously a tremendous public response to the concept of unsolved murders."

Child abductions and the disappearances of young women, provided they're white and attractive, are TV favourites, analysts note, pointing to a series of seemingly endless news reports on cases such as the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, a pretty Alabama high-school student, during a school trip to Aruba.

"I've got this whole theory about child abductions," Mr. Cohen said. "They've got to be middle-class blond girls. A black girl who's abducted, it's not news."

Prof. Kirtley said that an extra attraction of the JonBenet story is the fact that the Ramseys were not "trailer trash."

"Here we've got a little girl that's coming from an extremely affluent family. It didn't fit the preconceptions everybody had."

Although newspapers and network news also are interested in the story, it's cable news and its insatiable appetite for continuing stories that drive these crime and sex tales.

"The cable-news business deals in very small audiences, so little spikes in viewership are very important. You're talking about a couple of million people," said Peter Hart, a media analyst at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

"If the numbers look good tomorrow when the executives at CNN, Fox and MSNBC are looking at ratings," he said, then one can expect the story to capture a big percentage of air time over the next days and weeks.

Mr. Cohen recalls appearing on a Fox News media show in October, 1999, just after General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup in Pakistan and there was concern about the possibility of war.

The Fox show dealt with three subjects: the JonBenet Ramsey case, news that O. J. Simpson was involved in an altercation with his girlfriend and the latest on the Monica Lewinsky affair.

"There was no mention of India, Pakistan or the nuclear war," Mr. Cohen said.

"What popped into my head was that ironic bumper sticker from the eighties: 'One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.' I thought it should be updated for cable news. 'One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. But who cares? O. J. is back in the news.' "

© Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc

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