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JonBenet and the Hollywoodization of the News
August 21, 2006

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

More Americans can identify the Three Stooges than can name the three branches of government.

A closer look at what has happened to our present-day television news coverage offers some insight into the findings of the recent national poll.

The public has traditionally relied upon the TV information news media to keep them posted on the latest political, educational, scientific, social and cultural happenings of the day. But like every other facet of our society, the information news media have been Hollywoodized.

We see the effects of this phenomenon in nearly every network and cable news broadcast, the perfect faces, glittering sets, visual imagery, high-tech delivery, special effects and even dramatic scripting, which at times has wreaked havoc for those who have mistakenly crossed over the line and mixed in a little fiction (still technically the province of the entertainment media despite the desire on the part of some to eliminate the distinctions).

As eye- and ear-pleasing, interesting, thought-provoking and expectantly accurate the news presentations may be, there is one element that is becoming increasingly disturbing, and that is the search for and over-reporting of tabloid-style stories.

There is a "news casting couch" that seems to have evolved and along with it an industry that feeds upon stories featuring telegenic victims.

What in the past would have been a regional crime case now ascends to the national stage a la pregnant murder victim Lacy Peterson, missing co-ed Natalee Holloway and even runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks. Salacious detailing, sordid speculation and looped videos invariably accompany the coverage.

Now, in what appears to be an appeal to the lowest moral common denominator, the new twist in the JonBenet Ramsey case has networks bringing back disconcerting images of the little girl as she performed in pageants dressed like a Las Vegas showgirl.

Every detail that emerges provides the opportunity for another breaking story, the latest being that suspect John Mark Karr was seeking a sex-change operation.

The rush to be first with fresh tabloid news often results in the press jumping to conclusions. After the word came out that Karr had confessed on camera, the print and television media quickly concluded that the suspect was guilty.

The morning coverage was typified by headlines like the one in the Denver Post that read "Family's years of fear, anger come to an end" or the one in the New York Daily News that contained the single word "Solved."

Later the same day, the Denver Post read "Cracks in confession fuel skepticism," and the New York Times reported that at the day's end it was "unclear whether Mr. Karr's confession was genuine or the product of a troubled, attention-seeking man who had already exhibited a fervent fascination in the sexual abuse of children in general, and in the death of JonBenet Ramsey in particular."

Facts began to surface. Karr claimed he had picked JonBenet up from school the day she was killed, but JonBenet was actually out of school on Christmas vacation when she was murdered. The suspect also asserted that he drugged JonBenet, but the autopsy did not indicate any drugs in the girl's body. In addition, Karr's ex-wife claimed he was with her in Alabama at the time of the murder.

Other events of the day took a backseat to the speculative musings over the newly surfaced suspect.

The Think Progress Web site noted that when the story broke on August 17, 2006, coverage of the ruling on the NSA wiretaps received a fraction of the Ramsey coverage. ABC gave the JonBenet story twice the time as the NSA decision, CBS gave seven times as much programming to the Ramsey news and NBC gave Ramsey 15 times more airtime.

Even with the doubts surrounding Karr's confession, news venues are likely to be desperately seeking interviews with their latest media creation.

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Copyright © 2006
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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