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Why Are We Intrigued By Casey Anthony Trial?

Aired 7/6/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

Networks and cable news stations stopped regular programming yesterday, as the nation watched the verdict of the Casey Anthony murder trial. Why do some trials and criminal cases grab national attention? Does the media feed the frenzy or just follow it?

Networks and cable news stations stopped regular programming yesterday, as the nation watched the verdict of the Casey Anthony murder trial. Why do some trials and criminal cases grab national attention? Does the media feed the frenzy or just follow it?

Guests

Caitlin Rother, local true-crime author. Her books include "Poisoned Love" and "Dead Reckoning." She is a former investigative reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune

Karla Peterson, columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Her article today is titled "Why are people transfixed by the Casey Anthony case?"

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Just about anyone in front of a television in San Diego yesterday learned about the not guilty verdict in the Kate trial. Whether you say you cared or not, you probably knew more about the case than you thought you did and had an opinion about the verdict. Why did this one murder case get so much attention? Joining me is San Diego true crime writer, Caitlin Rother. Her books include poisoned love and dead reckoning. She is a former investigative reporter for the Union Tribune. Caitlin, hello.

ROTHER: Thanks for having me on today.

CAVANAUGH: And CarlA Peterson is here. Columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune. Her article today is titled why are people transfixed by the Casey Anthony case? Carla, hello.

PETERSON: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now, let's start with the question in your article: Why are people transfixed by this case?

PETERSON: I think people love a good human drama. Say what you will about the news value, which was negligible, most likely, it was an amazingly detective human story. You had a beautiful little girl who's dead. You had a supposedly hard partying mother who maybe didn't care, got a tattoo, attractive but in a kind of hard way. She was very, very easy to dislike. And the trial was very, very hard to look away from once you started watching.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both. In our news room where we don't cover a lot of crime stories, people were watching the monitors, watching TV, making phone calls to tell their friends the verdict. What was it like for both of you, Kaityln?

ROTHER: I didn't get a chance to watch too much of it. But it was hard to avoid. I was on Facebook though, and it was assistant. They wanted to talk about whether she was really going to get it. And honestly, people had convicted her in the public Arena two years ago. That's why this verdict, I think, was such a shock. Even though people didn't know all that much about the evidence, they thought they did.

CAVANAUGH: Carl?

PETERSON: I was shocked because I had watching the coverage on HLN like most people. And it was the kill Casey Anthony channel for the most part. So I think if that was the only place you were getting your news, you figure, well, of course she's guilty. She's guilty already. Haven't they put her away already? So to hear this sort of bolt of reality. Oh, not guilty, I think I was shocked.

CAVANAUGH: Carla, which comes first? Does the media drive interest in these high profile cases or would people be interested in it just to begin with and the media is following the public?

PETERSON: I think it's a loop. I think in the case of this story, I think there's no question that the media jump started it. Nancy grace jump started T. Am but the coverage would not have been as nonstop as it was if people were not interested. So the media starts it, people get interested, the media keeps airing it, people are still interested. And at that point, everybody's feeding off of everybody else. So the media I think sort of got it started, but the natural juiciness of the story I think really kept people interested.

CAVANAUGH: A lot of people criticize any coverage of this trial. They say who cares? Who should be interested? Murder trials go on every day in the United States. There will be some people who criticize us talking about it on the radio here. But the thing is, headline news ratings doubled during the Casey Anthony trial. So somebody's gotta be interested in this.

PETERSON: If people didn't care, HLN would not have been giving it the coverage they were giving it. People cared. You can say, well, maybe people shouldn't care. Maybe there are a million other things we should be caring about more. But the fact is, people cared.

CAVANAUGH: There are? Who Kay -- we talked about Nancy grace. Caitlin, they say that she -- she practically convicts suspects on her show.

ROTHER: She does.

CAVANAUGH: And they say that she's not just disturbing but perhaps even dangerous. What do you think?

ROTHER: Well, I come to write books where I could express my own opinion. But I really choose not to because I've been trained as an objective journalist, and I try to keep out of the way of the is it are and tell the story through the characters who are real people, but through their prison perspective. They may be lying. It doesn't mean I believe what they're saying. And she does that right out of the gate. Before any of the evidence is in, right after somebody arrested, even before somebody is arrested half the time, she's talking about it. In a juror is watching that, that's dangerous. But I don't -- it's not fair in the courtroom, but for her, she's just like a columnist on TV. It doesn't stop bill O'Reilly, Heraldo, Greta VanSusteren. And it gets everybody riled up. That's why in the public arena somebody like Casey Anthony is convicted before she's even gone to trial. And the danger is, watch the jurors watch T. Have they gotten riled up too? It's hard to find people who haven't been caught up in that. But clearly these jurors must have, or they wouldn't have found her not guilty.

CAVANAUGH: There is an edge to some of her commentary. I think she features in your article today.

PETERSON: There's not only an edge to what she does. There's a jagged edge. She's a polarizing personality. And that's why she's there. She doesn't pretend to be objective. She doesn't pretend to be a journalist. HLN does not pretend she is. They do treat her as an expert, which I think is a little iffy. But if you watch for any extended period of time, you know that she's a loose cannon. And I think that's why people watch. She's not in the business of being objective. That's not why she's there.

CAVANAUGH: I think we could all agree on that. Now, Carla, you outlined some of the elements of this particular case, the Casey Anthony case, that made it so interesting to so many people. Caitlin, you write true crime books. I'm wondering, what are the criteria that you look for when you pick a case to write about that you say, you know, people are gonna be interested in this and want to read about it?

ROTHER: Two examples: Kristen Rossum. That story is still going on. I covered the trial in 2002, and I'm doing an updated version that'll be released in December with 16†pages of new material. People are just still obsessed with that woman because she's beautiful, she was well educated, she came from a good family who loved her. And she destroyed her life by being a meth detect who creates a drive for sex, so she's having affairs left and right and lying to her husband, apparently smoking meth in the medical examiner's office where she's supposed to be helping solve homicides, she's actually committing one. So all of those psychological aspects, she's good looking, it's unexpected, she doesn't seem like a murderer, she destroyed her life, she's a drug detect. Those were all very sexy elements. I'm also in a very sympathetic victim --

CAVANAUGH: Just let me say, Kristen Rossum worked in the San Diego County medical examiner's office and was convicted of killing her husband.

ROTHER: Right. And she now has a federal appeal which has gotten some legs from the ninth circuit. Then the John gardener case which I'm working on right now. I'm trying to finish up a book. The anger at him was incredible. It was palpable. And the emotional support and love and compassion that poured out for his victims, Chelsea king and Amber DuBois, that emotion that I saw, that extreme spectrum of emotion, and the way that it galvanized this community made me feel like I had to write that book. Because I figure people are going to want to know. They want to know everything they possibly can about this guy even though he repulses them. Because they just thought that these victims were so -- it was just a tragedy that their livens were ended so quickly. And they were beautiful girls, their lives were promising, they were both bright, they both had something in front of them. So people could glom onto something. And people got involved in the search for them too. So they had an emotional investment. So did the law enforcement, which I'm finding out, this case, sheriff Bill gore told me this case was the most emotional for him out of any case. And he was in the FBI for years and years. So you look for something that really pulls emotion from people, where they're emotionally invested. And in this case, they're local. So it helps that it's been on TV, people know about it, they want to buy the book.

CAVANAUGH: Speaking of TV, we have a cable network devoted to true crime stories. We have specials like date line on NBC, 48†hours, that run crime stories practically every week. Carla, is this just voyeurism or is there any actual value do you think to this programming?

PETERSON: I'm not sure how much value there is. I think it gets people riled up, as Caitlin said. I think it makes people more frightened than they need to be. But people have always been obsessed with evil. I think we want to know why, we want to know what makes a person evil, we want to know why would a mother kill her child, if indeed that's what happened. We want to know why -- what makes the serial killer do what he does. Sherlock homes. How far back does that go? We love our crime. We want to know why. I think we think if we can figure out what makes a person do something, we can figure out how to stop it. We want to figure out why we're safe. If we can figure out why we're not safe, maybe we can figure out how we can be save. I think that's how we get so wrapped up in these stories.

CAVANAUGH: With the TV coverage and with the true crime aspect to TV documentaries, doesn't that sort of ramp the level up a little bit? We see the crime scenes, we go into the trials and see the trials. Is this murder as entertainment, Caitlin?

ROTHER: I think it is, but I also want to point out -- I think Carla said it very articulately. We can learn from these cases. That's part of what my goal is. I went into journalism because I wanted to do good. And I'm an author because I want to continue that mission. And teach people, number one, how to protect themselves. Number two -- if you want to turn a blind eye to somebody like John gardener, how are you going to possibly know if you ever meet someone like him? How are you going to protect yourself and your daughters? And how are you gonna get over that fear unless you know what to look for and how to protect yourself and your family? And frankly, I think it also has a healing aspect for some people. There are many people who have had molestation in their family, there's usually detection involved in these cases. There are many sides to our society that aren't pretty. But we have a lot of them in many of our families. And these things resonate with people, these themes. Life and death, it doesn't get more -- you can't relate to something like that more than that. We all deal with life and death. And we hope that this doesn't happen to us. But how are we going to learn how to prevent it if we don't learn about it.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you this question pretty quickly, Carla, and I'm sorry if it's too little time. But people who have just watched the verdict comparing this Casey Anthony case, and its not guilty verdict to the OJ Simpson trial. Do you think this massive coverage distorts the perception of the criminal justice system?

PETERSON: I think it makes us think that we're better experts than we are. I think because you see so much coverage, you think you know. And you think you're in a position to judge. I think that the legal system is more complicated than that. And I think that it -- there is the danger of the snap judgment and thinking that it's an easy process. And we have to, I think, remind ourselves that it isn't.

CAVANAUGH: We'll have to leave it there. I have been speaking with author Caitlin Rother and San Diego Union Tribune columnist Carla Peter Peterson. I want to thank you both.

ROTHER: Thank you.

PETERSON: Thank you.

Comments

Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | July 6, 2011 at 3:17 p.m. ― 3 years, 3 months ago

Glad someone asked this question, because I've wondered about this for a long time. I'm one of the few who only knows what I hear about the Casey Anthony case in passing. I watch the news in the morning while working out and can't help hear about it because it's on every channel. I haven't paid much attention to it because I don't want to feed into this and am more concerned about what's going on in the world than over 1 case.

I have no doubt the media feeds into this because they only want ratings. That's what drives their business. They feed it and feed it to milk it for all it's worth, sensationalize it to the point that people can't resist. It was a joke to see people scrambling for a seat in the courtroom to watch the Casey Anthony trial.

Yes, it is partly because people have nothing better to do than sit and watch these shows. You haven't seen anything yet. Wait til the book deals and movies come along. But whatever people want to believe, the media bears the most responsibility to spreading this nonsense for ratings. Just goes to show you cheap journalism is what they want to sell over more important issues like the economy, why businesses don't pay, climate change, and anything else. No wonder the world laughs at us.

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