The Robert Blake murder case hasn't gone to trial yet, but the media's guilt orgy is in full swing. Brows are furrowing, hands are wringing, and the usual crape-hangers are doing their best to make us feel just rotten about all the coverage we're giving Blake, and what this says about the state of the news.
When the man who gave civilization Baretta was arrested a few weeks ago, CNN cut into its planned programming to give this crucial event the kind of blanket coverage that anyone with half a brain knows it doesn't deserve. This plunged all right-thinking media people into the foulest mood. Even those who did the deed were simply appalled by it. Aaron Brown, the host of CNN's NewsNight, opened that evening with a bizarre quasi-apology for his own show's decision to devote itself to the Blake story: "As we sit here tonight, there's a ton and a half going on in the world, and all of it is, in the larger scheme of things, really important. This [the Blake arrest] is interesting, and this is breaking and this is news. But at some point there are these other things that need to be dealt with, too."
It's always amusing to watch a journalist use the same passive, obfuscatory language ("at some point," "need to be dealt with") that we mock when it comes out of a sniveling politician.
But the self-loathing had only just begun. When the ratings came in, it turned out that CNN got a nice boost, or what was reported as a nice boost, from its decision. "Blake Case Causes Unexpected Ratings Jump for CNN," reported an Associated Press story, which noted that CNN had picked up "its biggest prime-time audiences of the year" thanks to the arrest coverage. This news, which seemed to justify every dark thought you've ever had about what drives the media, was picked up widely. And the wailers started wailing.
"Most national [television] outlets have thoroughly disgraced themselves by their attention to it," Martin Kaplan, an associate dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, told David Folkenflik of The Baltimore Sun. "It has only voyeuristic content and deserves only 1 percent of the coverage it's getting."
Before this goes too far, let's take a deep breath and look at what's really happening with the Blake story and others like it. To watch all the garment-rending, you'd think the whole news business, and the universe itself, was about to be taken over by celebrity murder and mayhem. In fact, this is far from true, and there are sound reasons why anyone who really cares about the news can view these stories with equanimity.
First, the numbers are tiny. Reading beyond the headline of that Associated Press story about CNN's ratings "jump," one learned that the network averaged 1.9 million viewers for its coverage of the Blake arrest. NewsNight, Brown's show, pulled in less than a million viewers on this, a banner night. Television people buzzed about the fact that it was the first time in weeks Brown had defeated Greta Van Susteren's On the Record. But we're talking minuscule audiences. According to the Daily News of New York, NewsNight drew 961,000 viewers that night, versus 900,000 for On the Record.
To put those figures in perspective, consider that a recent installment of 60 Minutes pulled in 16.1 million viewers, 17 times the number that watched NewsNight on its Night of Shame. On that extremely significant evening of media decadence, Brown was broadcasting to an audience less than one-third the size of the population of Maricopa County, Ariz. The most popular news show on cable, Fox's The O'Reilly Factor, has an audience of slightly more than 2 million, or less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.
You get the picture. While the occasional celebrity crime story (O.J., Chandra) does play huge across the news universe, most do not. The fact that the cable channels will try anything to goose their itsy-bitsy numbers—this week, Fox devoted 90 minutes to live, national coverage of California highway police chasing a homeless man in a stolen Geo—doesn't mean that the sky is falling all over medialand.
To the contrary, the failure of the Blake story to catch fire beyond cable suggests that, try as they might, our more-desperate news outlets can't just turn any old celebrity murder into a national obsession. The public is not as gullible as some news executives like to think. When a young Washington intern who was sleeping with a U.S. congressman disappears, people want to know what happened to her. When a beloved Heisman Trophy winner and movie star is accused of brutally killing his beautiful wife, and the trial raises meaty questions about race, celebrity, and justice, that's authentic news, and anyone with a pulse will care.
Those stories had what the Blake story sorely lacks: the sense that you are watching people of real accomplishment and power laid low. It's this change of fortune, and the always-striking idea that apparently admirable people can turn out to be murderous scum, that turns a celebrity crime story into much more. Reading about the lives of Robert Blake and Bonny Lee Bakley, admirable is not the first word that comes to mind. In order to fall from grace, you have to have some grace to begin with.
The best journalists, those with real news judgment, know this, and see the Blake saga for the sideshow it is. And this sideshow is staying right where it belongs: in the supermarket tabloids, and on cable.