Thanks to my profound cluelessness about television and the rest of pop culture, I had never heard of the A&E show The First 48 until I read this Miami New Times takedown of it by Terrence McCoy. The story of a popular, decade-old show (who knew?) that leaves in its wake “sloppy crime scenes, rushed arrests, ruined lives” ends up convincing me that The First 48 is guilty of bad journalism. But I’m unconvinced that it’s to blame for bad policing.
On the first charge, McCoy’s descriptions of the swagger and bang-bang action, and details of the show’s cavalier approach to following up when suspects portrayed as perps end up cleared of charges, paint a picture of exploitative infotainment. It sounds like an action flick that makes no point other than to provide a vicarious thrill as we ride along with badass cops. Even worse, the show seems not to care when cases it hyped turn out to be bad arrests.
But the story makes a bigger claim: that the show’s very premise, the necessity for quick arrests in murder investigations, goads police into rushing to judgment. It’s tempting to believe it, but where’s the proof that it causes rather than merely observes bad police work? The story would have been valuable enough if it simply documented the show’s addiction to action and failure to report fully and accurately on whether the police made the right calls.
A few years ago I traveled to New York City to appear on a panel at a law school event billed as a review of the year’s legal reporting. At the time, I ran a Carnegie-supported program at Syracuse University that promoted quality legal journalism. I dutifully prepped for the discussion by reading up on Supreme Court cases and honing my talking points about criminal-justice policy as reflected in quality true-crime narratives. And off to the big city I went.
Boy, was I embarrassed. No one wanted to hear what I had to say. The other panelists were all what we call in the business “TV lawyers,” meaning the talking heads who go on air to analyze crime stories — from arrest through trial, though rarely appeals, and certainly not the wonky world of the Supreme Court — on cable and network television. I had no idea who they were or what cases they were talking about. We were from opposite sides of Planet True Crime. And it was clear, from the reactions of the mostly law-student audience, that I inhabited the dark side of that planet.
I was reminded of that today while reading this New York Times front-pager by Vivian Yee and Alison Leigh Cowan profiling Mickey Sherman. It’s a portrait of a lawyer who confused TV lawyering with real lawyering, and now — in a court decision that lays bare his inadequacies in the courtroom — sees his client Michael Skakel granted a new trial as a result. The story notes Sherman’s, and everyone’s, start in TV lawyering, at Court TV, which in the early days — I was there, on the fringes — erred on the side of wonky true crime. But it evolved, or if you prefer degenerated, as its ratings suffered whenever there was no “trial of the century” in progress, which is fairly often. It’s gone now, replaced by truTV, a showcase for campy so-called reality shows.
My point? Just as there are two types of criminal lawyers — real ones who do the work that matters and “media whores” who are all talk — journalism is stratified in much the same way. The exploitation of crime for entertainment is not exactly new, nor will it ever go away, nor will “serious” crime journalism ever rival it for popularity. But there is a clear distinction worth recognizing. It’s as real as the difference between a lawyer who talks about representing clients and one who actually does.
Yet more proof that satire can drive home a point more effectively than most other commentary: this week’s episode of South Park, in which the kids, fearing violence, block their parents’ obsessive viewing of true-crime shows that sexualize crime. Because I’m old and clueless, I didn’t follow all the inside jokes about the video game Minecraft (the basis for the password clue to unlock Investigation Discovery channel and other “murder porn” shows). But I did enjoy the skewering of cable programming executives (see clip below; the nipple massage makes sense, in a manner of speaking, once you view the entire episode). And, germane to this blog’s point, I must admit it raised real questions about the line between quality true-crime storytelling and sleaze.
What defines quality? In all of the narratives I write about on this blog and on Twitter, I emphasize policy issues and education: the substantive medicine that we hope goes down easier when surrounded by an engaging story. We want to believe that by examining cases where the law comes to life, we teach readers and viewers while entertaining them. Do “serious” crime journalists rationalize a bit much when simply trying to tell a good yarn? Undoubtedly. But there’s also little doubt about the existence of a quality hierarchy when we put a David Grann or Pamela Colloff, say, next to pulpy true-crime books and over-produced “murder porn” shows that play up the drama over all else. As with any subjective call, but particularly one involving porn, I guess we know it when we see it.
Enjoy the clip.