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August 23, 2006

All JonBenet, All the Time


Anyone who regularly watches cable news knows that the medium is seldom a stranger to excess. Whatever the major story of the day is, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News can be counted on to cover it from every angle – including those that are the most superfluous and irrelevant.


But with the sudden re-emergence of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, the cable news triumvirate may have hit a new low. Not only have numerous other stories of major global significance been all but ignored, but the way the case has been handled has been nothing short of shameful.


When it was announced that John Mark Karr had confessed to the murder, the case didn’t just become a major cable news topic. It all but took over all three networks.


This is terrible for two reasons. One, it’s not 1996 anymore. There’s a lot going on in the world these days, all of it very important. The United States is at its first-ever red terror alert, after the breakup of a plot to blow up airliners headed into the U.S. from London. The ceasefire in Israel and Lebanon remains tenuous, and liable to explode at any time. Iraq remains an increasingly unsalvageable mess, while Iran and North Korea continue their pursuit of nuclear weapons. And as the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, the specter of further hurricanes remains.


But, from cable news at least, we’ve heard very little about any of this in the past week and a half. Instead, it’s been all JonBenet, all the time.


Secondly, it’s not just that they do it. It’s the way they do it. That constantly looping reel - you know the one - of JonBenet’s beauty pageant footage is back and in non-stop rotation, seemingly hammering home the point that the biggest reason JonBenet’s death was a tragedy was because she was so damn cute. Ditto for Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway and all the other beautiful murdered women we’ve been hearing about non-stop, at the expense of every other murdered non-beauty queen.


So we get blanket coverage of insignificant events, and insignificant aspects of those events. That’s why more time has been spent on what Karr was drinking on the plane back to Colorado than, say, the war in Iraq.


Yes, of course it’s a tragedy that a six-year-old girl was murdered. And, there’s always some fascination with a murder that remains unsolved years later. But there’s no way any reasonable person could suggest that JonBenet’s murder was a significant event that has affected the world in any meaningful way. Thus far in 2006, there have been nearly 250 murders in Philadelphia, where I live. How many of those victims have been mentioned on Fox News or CNN lately?


JonBenet isn’t the only story that has me shaking my head about the news channels this week. On August 14, Fox News reporter Steve Centanni was abducted in the Gaza Strip, along with cameraman Olaf Wiig. Yes, an American journalist, one who is extremely visible and well-known, was abducted from an area known not only as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, but as a battleground in the Arab-Israeli conflict.


But then a strange thing happened: The Centanni story was all but ignored, not only by the mainstream media, but by blogs as well. This happened despite the fact that when American journalists Daniel Pearl and Jill Carroll were abducted, respectively, from Pakistan and Iraq, it generated constant headlines. Even more strangely, Centanni was abducted the same week that the Christian Science Monitor began publishing Carroll’s memoir of her abduction. And even more strangely than that, the Centanni media blackout happened while hundreds more media members than usual were in Israel/Palestine.


Michelle Malkin, among others, has put forward the theory that, like everything else, “liberal media bias” is to blame. But that doesn’t explain why Fox News itself has barely spent any time covering the kidnapping of its own reporter, or why the right-wing blogosphere barely touched this story for its entire first week.


There’s something worse going on here than liberal bias. It’s the need of cable news to embrace sensationalism and shallowness at every turn. In times of great global uncertainty, I wish our news outlets would actually devote the majority of their attention to that, rather than to a decade-old murder.

© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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