As everyone with a TV, computer or ears has heard, Casey Anthony was acquitted of charges of murdering her young daughter. I did not follow the trial. Place me in the camp that believes that there are hundreds of other trials going on right now that are no more or less interesting. However, the verdict and aftermath bring up a couple of interesting issues.
First, many are furious that Ms. Anthony was acquitted. The level of anger is absurd. Criticizing a jury verdict in a criminal case is like criticizing a decision by the show Top Chef to eliminate a contestant. Contestants on the show are judged based on the quality of their food. Viewers are given information about the food quality, such as reactions by those eating it, but without actually tasting it, viewers cannot credibly evaluate which contestant should win or lose.
Similarly, the vast majority of the critics of the Anthony verdict have insufficient information to come to an educated judgment. The criminal cases that go to trial are the ones that depend on the credibility of witnesses. A jury’s job is to evaluate that credibility. Jurors watch everything in a courtroom: the defendant’s posture during the testimony of other witnesses, the eye contact that people make with one another, the tone of people’s voices, the timing of objections made by attorneys, etc.
In this instance, cameras were allowed in the courtroom. But even if a person were to have watched every second of the trial on TV—and I am sure most critics did not—there is only so much that a camera can pick up. Also, the critics know nothing about what was discussed in the jury room, what evidence was emphasized, or how the credibility of witnesses was evaluated.
At the end of the day, twelve reasonable and unbiased people all agreed that there was insufficient evidence to convict Casey Anthony of murder. I, for one, trust the opinions of those twelve people much more than I trust the opinion of HLN anchor Nancy Grace, who is advancing her career by sensationalizing the trial.
Second, many people are upset that the media has covered the trial so closely. I think that CNN has actually handled the situation well. CNN has accurately identified a fundamental problem with media in the 21st century: the media must compete for viewers in order to turn a profit, and viewers often prefer Casey Anthony news to debt ceiling news. CNN has addressed this problem by creating two stations, one for each type of news. That way, CNN can remain a relatively serious news channel, and those looking for news that doesn’t really matter can tune in to HLN. So, CNN meets the Casey Anthony demand without sacrificing serious programing.
Critics would say that nobody would have cared about Casey Anthony if HLN hadn’t played it up in the first place. That criticism is probably true, but it misses the point. The point is that there is demand for news that doesn’t really matter. Imagine HLN did not exist, and MSNBC played up Casey Anthony instead. In that case, CNN would have faced a serious dilemma: ignore the trial and fall behind in the ratings competition or cover the trial and sacrifice more consequential stories.
We, as Americans, have a choice between having a free press that chases ratings and a government-influenced press that covers consequential issues. We have (rightly) chosen the former.