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Nancy Grace and Violent Pornography
I have this friend…All right, actually it is my father's second wife. For over a year she was addicted to watching Nancy Grace wax indignant and self-righteous on television. It was a year my father regrets, for he had little patience with Nancy Grace, and a year in which I learned all I needed to know about her. And what little I learned disturbed me.
As I browsed HubPages yesterday, I ran across a heartfelt reaction to Nancy Grace. A young woman was very upset by a story she had seen on Grace's show, and she had allowed Nancy to guide her through to the appropriate emotional state of fear, horror, and indignation. How can people do these things to innocent children? she wondered. Nancy Grace had her going, and that got me thinking of that wasted year my father and I had shared with his wife.
I do not object to crime reporting or trial coverage. This is a free, open society, and so long as it remains so, trials are processes in which we as citizens should be interested and crime is a problem that affects us all. But I don't think Nancy Grace is a reporter. She is a pornographer. I will explain exactly what I mean by that as we proceed.
Let me set forth a few principles regarding the system of law in the United States before we get back to Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor who should know something about that system. First, the system of law in the United States provides certain rights to the accused. These rights are largely the rights of every citizen to a fair trial before his, or her, peers, the right to face his/her accusers, the right to legal counsel, and the imposition of ethical standards and a legal process on the prosecutor. We do not get to freely beat confessions out of people in the United States, or manufacture evidence proving what we believe to be true, and if the prosecutor or the police are caught doing so, they free the defendant. Second, the system of law that we have developed in the United States, though not free from problems and inequities, is the best system presently available. Third, the aim of justice, to be secured through a system of laws in which facts are presented to jurors and a verdict is rendered based on those facts, is not only to convict the guilty, but also to protect and free the innocent. I think these principles are basic enough to gain wide acceptance, and will proceed as if we agree upon them.
Nancy Grace, it seems to me, is operating on a different set of principles from those I have averred above. She is completely pro-prosecution, by which I mean that she assumes from the beginning that the accused is guilty beyond any doubt, let alone reasonable doubt. She assumes the defense is always invalid, when not malicious and corrupt. She deploys facts as the penitentes deployed sin, in order to whip herself and her audience into a frenzy of emotion that is not cathartic, but rage enhancing. She creates a lynching mood in her audience by creating hagiographic martyrologies on the bodies of tortured, abused, mutilated and murdered children.
She is not reporting the facts of a given criminal case. That is beneath her. She is an advocate for the victim, baring their wounds in great, precise, gory detail. This is what she is interested in, what she gives her audience--a vision of the last moment, the torment, the despair, the pain. In medieval literature, this loving attention to the passion of Christ and of the martyr-saints was the norm. One was to dwell on their pain, on their sacrifice, and through memorializing that pain and sacrifice, through reliving their torment, one was to approach God in humility and penitence, unworthy of the grace of a God for whom others had sacrificed so much, while the penitent had not. The martyrologies taught the practice of heroic redemption. That is not the purpose served by Nancy Grace's martyrologies, in which children are sacrificed to the whims and perversities of modern men and women to no holy purpose, without volunteering themselves (medieval martyr-saints were largely a population of volunteers), and without a redemptive aim.
What then is the purpose? If we watch Nancy Grace's narrative form play out, and there is little variation in the form, the end seems to be an opportunity to weep and to speak of justice. Justice in this narrative means punishment of a person handily identified by Nancy Grace as the certain culprit of the nefarious deed. If it is a narrative spun over several weeks, let us say a trial, then there will be repeated crying, and occasional angry outbursts vilifying the defense for daring to defend. Justice would be served best, it seems, in a world of prosecutors alone.
Is there another way to report on crime and the criminal justice system? Certainly. First, we must reject the notion that being informed of the facts of a criminal case must mean knowing every single obscene detail of the crime itself. This is what makes Nancy Grace's reporting pornographic. The facts she gives and dwells upon are unnecessary facts. Reporting them does not add to the fund of knowledge the viewer has without them. For example, in the Casey Anthony case, it was enough for us to know that a child was missing, presumed dead, and that the mother was the prime suspect. That is, indeed, all we did know in the case, since Casey's body was not found. If you think you know anything more regarding that child's death you have been misled somewhere along the line. You have too many facts when in fact, as the prosecutors discovered at trial, we have too few. If we did know more, it would not do you or me any good to have that information. It would not, in fact, increase our usable knowledge, unless we were sitting on the jury finding for guilt, innocence, or insufficient evidence at trial. All the gory details in the world add up to a child is dead, and we think her mother did it.
As to reporting on trials, it is not the reporters job to declare a winner before the end of the trial. They may ethically report on testimony, on statements by both the prosecutor and the defense attorneys, on the behavior of the judge, the lawyers, and the defendant in the courtroom. They may help us understand that behavior by defining legal terms and strategies for us. However, we do not need our reporters to play prosecutor, to pick a side and not deviate from it. We should not be spoon-fed a pre-packaged emotional response that distracts us from the facts, merits, and problems of the case at hand. If we are going to be in a frenzy, let us each choose our own frenzy and fuel it with our own fire.
Nancy Grace is yet another reporter in the American media inviting us not to think. In her case, the invitation comes with the permission to feel, but I find this permission manipulative and insipid. I cannot stomach violence done to children. Particular cases of violence to children have in the past made me feel physically ill. I do not need Nancy Grace to give me permission to feel repulsed and sickened, and I do not need her luxuriating in the gore to get me there either. It is harder, I think, for people to remember and apply the principles of American law I identified at the beginning of this essay when they are emotionally engaged. Providing us information the primary motive of which is to make us feel in a realm, that of law, that is so important socially and politically warps the discourse, turning us away from issues that might merit discussion to indulge ourselves in feeling bad, or horrified, or so much more moral than those other people who do not feel bad enough or horrified enough.
This is what I mean when I say Nancy Grace is a pornographer. She is not selling sex, nor is that what her audience is buying from her. She is selling ecstasy, that odd sort of ecstasy we odd creatures, humans, get when we indulge our emotions, our passions, and let them carry us far beyond where reason will allow. We are human, and we love to feel, even when we feel bad.