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February 26, 2007

A Tale of Two Trials


There were two major court proceedings taking place in the U.S. last week that drew a fair amount of media attention. One of them was very important and will likely show up in history books decades from now, while the other was not, and will not. However, it’s the latter trial that dominated television coverage last week, and with the former barely mentioned at all.


I’m speaking, of course, of the perjury and obstruction trial of former White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and the custody hearing involving the body of the late Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith. The relative coverage of the two, needless to say, has not been the broadcast news media’s finest hour.


Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is accused of perjuring himself multiple times as part of an alleged White House conspiracy to discredit former ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame. This is a case that has been in the news for almost four years, and the trial has shed all sorts of light on certain, not-so-savory practices of the Bush Administration. (As of this writing, the jury had the case but had not reached a verdict.)


Yes, I understand the trial itself has not been televised. But it’s almost shocking how little Libby’s trial has been covered by the three cable news channels, in comparison to Anna news. In fact, the only primetime news host giving major play to the Libby trial has been MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, who, to be fair, certainly has a partisan axe to grind.


Why is this? The most common answer is that the people want their Anna Nicole news, accompanied by constant b-roll footage of Anna in various cute outfits. They also want to see Larry King, every night, interviewing the same five people who are tangentially connected to the case, including that one friend of Anna’s who’s intent on being the Faye Resnick of the 21st Century.


The cynical answer is that Americans have no trouble understanding a scandal when it’s about sex, or paternity, or other such base things. When things get complicated – like the Plame case, like the Enron scandal, etc. – is when people get confused, and are less likely to stay tuned for hours at a time.


The low point was probably the moment Thursday morning when both CNN and MSNBC cut away from their gavel-to-gavel Anna Nicole coverage and went to another courtroom… the one in California where Kevin Federline, ex-husband of Britney Spears, was said to be demanding a custody hearing (for his two children with Spears; no, K-Fed has not thrown his hat in the Anna Nicole paternity ring.) For shear absurdity, this rivaled that CNN moment the week of Smith’s death, mercifully mocked by Jon Stewart, when Lou Dobbs promised in a teaser that he would spend his entire hour not talking about Anna Nicole – after which the camera cut back to Wolf Blitzer, standing in front of four screens with different pictures of Anna herself.


In fact, Britney’s antics are about the only thing that’s pulled the news channels away from all-Anna, all-the-time these past two weeks. It should go without saying, then, that it was reported a few days later that Federline had demanded no such hearing.


But at least Britney was actually a major cultural icon, who dominated popular music for several years and sold more than 70 million albums. Her fall is both shocking and in some way fascinating. Anna Nicole was a Playboy model best known for marrying a 90-year-old billionaire, starring in a mid-level reality show and becoming a tabloid fixture late in life. Not only was no one really surprised by her death, but comparing her to Marilyn Monroe, a true icon and talent who starred in several movies that are still considered classics four decades after her death, is especially ridiculous.


I feel the same way about Anna Nicole that I do about Barbaro. Sure, it’s sad that she’s dead. I just don’t understand why it has to be a weeks-mourned tragedy for everyone in the country.


The Anna Nicole stuff can be a bit entertaining, especially the bizarreness of the four potential fathers and the crazy judge at the preliminary hearing. But there’s no way in the world this case deserves to monopolize news coverage, all day and all night – especially when something actually important, the Libby trial, is ignored by comparison.


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