Allow me to defend cable TV’s extended live coverage of the George Zimmerman murder trial, even though I’ve not watched a second of it, nor have I tuned in to any of the nightly rehashes aired on CNN, HLN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Championing the Zimmerman telemania puts me at variance with the critics of tabloid TV, who want the cable news networks to focus their cameras instead on the Cairo uprising, President Barack Obama’s climate speech, the slaughter in Syria, voters’ rights, the NSA outrages, Wall Street, congressional hearings, and other examples of “meaningful” and “important” news. Directly disparaging CNN’s Zimmerman surplus at the expense of the Egyptian uprising is New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who asserts that the network’s new president, Jeff Zucker, “wants everyone in his company to know what the priorities are: Mini-series in the center, world events off to the side.”
Rosen is right about what Zucker wants. But the call for more broadcast hours devoted to news “that matters” and fewer hours of TV trials — that, as many have accurately put it, are barely distinguishable from CSI episodes — might have been more persuasive in the days when the television audience had only the three broadcast network newscasts to choose from, when the only national newspaper was the business-oriented Wall Street Journal, when there was no real-time access to foreign newspapers and broadcasts, and when researchers were only fantasizing about something as ubiquitous as the Web. But today’s media menu gives the news audience more opportunities than ever before to find the news that others might describe as meaningful and important. It might have made sense three decades ago, when CNN was getting started, that its over-coverage of one story was blotting out other, more worthy stories. But that critique doesn’t apply to 2013. CNN, which used to be the only TV news meal at times of breaking international news like this, is only one of the entrees. Any number of sites have live-streamed the Egyptian protests on to the Web and sharply reported, photographed, and filmed accounts from Cairo are only a hashtag search away the reader’s eye. Go ahead and complain about CNN if you want to, but footnote your critique with easily accessible alternative sources.
In today’s media environment, the media critic who insists that the cable networks follow Egypt and drop Zimmerman is like the nudging dining companion who wants to order both his meal and yours, lest you embarrass him by mistakenly ordering the burger and fries. He finds the burger and fries déclassé and bad for you and would rather you add something more tofu-and-wheatgrassy to your media diet.
To be fair, the best tabloid TV contains more nourishment than any burger and fries platter, even if it will always be déclassé. If you read HLN’s transcripts from Nancy Grace’s shows about the Zimmerman case, you’ll absorb enough information about how the criminal justice system works to write a MOOC on how to defend or prosecute a murder case. Most of what a layman needs to know about police investigations, police interrogations, witness rights, evidentiary standards, jury selection, and courtroom strategy can be found in Grace’s shriekings and those of her commentators. A week’s worth of her Zimmerman coverage probably contains as much civic education as any half-dozen Frontline documentaries on PBS.
The transformation of some of TVland’s laziest couch potatoes into armchair lawyers began in the early-1990s, as Court TV (now TruTV) lent its relentless attention to the murder trials of the Menendez brothers and of O.J. Simpson. CNN has preserved Court TV’s greatest hits on a page that links to highlights from the trials of the Menendez brothers, Simpson, Timothy McVeigh, Andrea Yates, Michael Skakel, William Kennedy Smith, Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, Phil Spector, and more. Like every audience that’s ever gathered around a fire, TV viewers hunger for stories about the fall of the great, of infanticide and rape, of jealous murder and madness, of child abuse and racial or clan conflict. The TV trials of George Zimmerman, Jodi Arias, Casey Anthony, and all the others engage viewers because the human fascination with sordid and depraved stories seems to have no limits.