Kill and Overkill

History will record that in the early summer of 2001, America was at peace.

Except on MSNBC, where, at 2 p.m. on the day the Yates murder story broke in Houston, budding historians at home on school vacation could watch anchor Ashleigh Banfield move with creamy smoothness from the "tragic" deaths of the five Yates kids to "WHERE IS CHANDRA?" This all-caps, boldface phrase ran across the bottom of the screen as Banfield called on one of her correspondents for the absolute freshest dump on Chandra Levy and Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif.

Chandra's landlord was "telling NBC News" that Chandra said in January she would leave her apartment because she was going to move in with "a secret boyfriend," though that move never happened. Condit, meanwhile, had neglected to tell police that his wife was in town around the time Chandra disappeared.

But enough of the possibly dead intern. Next, history marched on to a frightening new video of the terrorist Osama Bin Laden. And from there, back to the Houston murders, which anchor Banfield now was calling "just an absolute tragedy"—before she switched to a stunning clip of a Kansas police officer grabbing a would-be suicide as she jumps off a bridge; he goes over with her, but he holds on to the bridge with one arm, and the sui doesn't cide after all.

After a commercial break, Banfield returned at 2:24 to announce, "We're back covering a story from Houston that's absolutely unbelievable." In some detail, and in a tone that history might describe as ravenous incredulity, she described how Andrea Yates had led police into a bedroom where four of her children were dead under a bedsheet, and to a bathroom where the fifth was floating in the tub. After another commercial, at 2:27 the Yates kids were briefly on hold because Banfield had video of an unidentified woman crying. "A 10-year-old boy is attacked by three pit bull dogs," intoned the anchor, before moving on to a new study about "sexual predators online."

It was quite a half hour in America. And the sharpest historians knew that all of the above news actually happened in a kind of parenthesis: MSNBC was taking a break from its blanket coverage of the trial of the Boston allergist accused of brutally murdering his wife after she discovered he liked prostitutes and porn, or what MSNBC calls the "SECRET LIFE TRIAL."

As this slice of life (and death) from one cable channel suggests, it's shaping up to be another summer of violence in the media. Not everywhere in the media, but in certain prominent quarters. As usual, while some outlets serve up all the child killings and molestations, missing-girl mysteries, wife-bludgeonings, and assorted other gore they can squeeze out of the nation, other outlets, and sometimes the same outlets, will condemn the whole circus. The condemnations have already begun. "When we start printing stories, and we don't have facts, and we appear to the public as if we are just interested in the salacious titillation side of this story, we harm our own reputation and credibility," said The New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, in a report on the Chandra story that I caught on Rivera Live.

The question is why these lurid crime stories continue to play so huge in the media, if right-thinking people hate them so much. Are right-thinking people just a tiny minority within a larger nation of bloodthirsty voyeurs who adore MSBNC-style journalism? This seems unlikely. For years, most Americans have told pollsters there's too much violence in the media and have cited this as a likely cause of school shootings and other horrors. Yes, this could be just a lie people tell in order to seem respectable, while inside they're praying for another big kill.

But the coverage of these recent stories suggests a different answer. First, it's crucial to realize that murder is a deeply fascinating subject. This was as well-known to Shakespeare as it is to Geraldo. It's the reason Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time, and Sue Grafton is the hottest right now. Anyone who doesn't want to know more about a young intern who may have died after pursuing a friendship with a member of Congress, or a mother who woke up one morning and drowned all five of her children, isn't fully alive. Killing another person is a radical departure from normal behavior, an exceptional event, and therefore, the definition of news.

The problem isn't this natural human interest in murder, it's how the media handle that interest. Rather than delivering it straight and letting viewers have their own reactions—that mix of revulsion, fright, anger, and fascination we've all felt—some media outlets insist on having the reaction for us, over and over, rubbing our noses (and eyes) in the story until we're ill with it. I mean MSNBC's returning to the Yates story every few minutes, telling us it's so "tragic." I mean Newsweek putting a Yates family photo on its cover, and inside asking us to look at a picture of the four boys in their Halloween costumes last year, plus a separate close-up of baby Mary. Then, in the text, prodding us to "imagine the eyes staring back" at Andrea Yates as she held her children's heads under the water. And, as a bonus: "It is hard to conceive of the snakes that were writhing in her head."

Thanks so much, Newsweek. You really know how to take a gripping murder story—and murder it.