BY: DAVID BAUDER
No sooner had Casey Anthony been acquitted on charges of killing her daughter than her attorneys lashed out against cable news coverage that they said unfairly cast the verdict as shocking.
Shortly after the jury’s decision was announced, one of Anthony’s lawyers, Cheney Mason, said he hoped the verdict was a lesson to those who had “indulged in media assassination” during the three years between 2-year-old Caylee Anthony’s disappearance and her mother’s acquittal for murder.
Mason did not mention anyone by name, but his remarks seemed aimed at Nancy Grace of the HLN network, which has seen its fortunes soar with extensive coverage of the trial.
“There is no way that this is a verdict that speaks the truth,” Grace said.
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Grace, the former prosecutor with a primetime show, began covering the Anthony story in 2008 as a missing persons case and has made little secret of her belief in Casey Anthony’s guilt.
HLN, formerly known as CNN Headline News, aired the full trial and extensive analysis. Its average viewership essentially doubled in June over a year before, according to the Nielsen Co.
Grace, the network’s most prominent personality with an average of 1.5 million viewers a night, had her most-watched month ever in June. Her Facebook fan page has gained 49,000 viewers since the start of the trial, HLN said.
Mason criticized “biased and prejudiced and incompetent talking heads saying what it would be and how it would be.
“I can tell you that my colleagues from coast to coast and border to border have condemned this whole process of lawyers getting on television and talking about cases that they don’t know a thing about, and don’t have the experience to back up their words or the law to do it,” he said. “Now you have learned a lesson.”
Many commentators on other networks also expressed surprise at the verdict. Some filled time in the 45 minutes before the decision with discussions that assumed Anthony would be convicted, particularly because the jury reached a decision relatively quickly.
Others said on air afterward they had assumed there would be a guilty verdict on at least one felony charge.
Grace appeared to take Mason’s comments personally.
“What does he care about what pundits are saying?” she said, adding that she imagines she’s tried and covered as many cases as Mason. She criticized defense attorneys for delivering media criticism before mentioning Caylee’s name in their post-verdict news conference.
“Caylee’s death is now just a blip on the screen,” she said. “It didn’t mean anything. It didn’t amount to a hill of beans.”
During the Grace-anchored live coverage of the verdict, correspondents interviewed people outside of the courthouse, most of them expressing dismay. Grace took phone calls, including one from a woman who said, “That woman just got away with murder, Nancy.”
Michelle Zierler, director of the Project in Law and Journalism at the New York University School of Law, said she had essentially been convinced that Anthony was guilty from watching coverage of the trial. The jurors, however, weren’t exposed to this coverage.
She said Grace “is always certain that the defendant is guilty and needs instant punishment.”
“It’s sort of entertainment and buyer beware, and unfortunately too many people succumb to that sort of hype,” Zierler said.
She said she believed Grace’s opinion affected her analysis of the case. For instance, Grace had criticized the closing arguments of Anthony’s defense team while Zierler, who also watched, said she believed those lawyers did a good job summing up their case, even if they had not convinced her.
HLN President Scot Safon said he was comfortable with how the network had covered the case.
“Over the course of our coverage, we gave a platform to a pretty broad range of potential outcomes here,” he said.
Given the extensive coverage of the trial, Mason’s arguments probably got their fullest airing on HLN, he said.
HLN’s ratings success is an indication that its focus on high-interest legal cases is likely to continue. Safon said HLN wants to concentrate on “water cooler” news stories that people like to talk about, and the Anthony case fit the approach perfectly.
By covering the trial extensively, HLN also filled a void left by Court TV, which was shut down and renamed Tru TV, with a focus on nonfiction programming. Safon said the network will probably give extensive coverage to the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor at the time of the pop star’s death.
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