True crime is and always has been a big industry in America. When Nancy Grace held vigil over the trial of Casey Anthony as she was tried for the murder of her two-year-old child Caylee Anthony, the nation was enthralled. “Helter Skelter,” the true crime book by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi detailing the murderous rampage of Charles Manson and his “family” continues to be a success. New books and blogs containing ever evolving JFK assassination theories are created each year. America loves violence, even the very real, very fatal kind.
Journalism is a huge participant in the country’s love affair with true crime. Nancy Grace is an extreme example—so much so that she was caricatured in this year’s “Gone Girl” by a wide-eyed, overly sensational blonde journalist with a down-to-earth accent—but the news business does seem to prey on the particularly grisly details of any disaster, massacre or unfortunate, ill-timed death.
I like to think myself part of that journalism generalization and do find myself clicking on the most appalling, shocking bait that streams its way up through my Twitter feed. And I too, perhaps more than others, find myself audience to various true crime television shows including “Snapped,” “Who Did I Marry,” and “48 Hours,” with my favorite being, of course, “Dateline.”
Often the reporting and the shock and entertainment value of such shows gets conflated. Sure, “48 Hours” is presented as entertainment, timed with musical intervals meant to keep you sitting on the edge of your seat, biting your nails, and breathing in alternating gasps and sighs, but its production also involves some amount of reporting and sifting through of court documents. It is journalism, no matter how minute, presented for entertainment.
That kind of entertainment—with a journalistic, “true” edge—is now big business in Hollywood. A stream of films portraying journalists and real life, violent crimes have seen success counted in multi-digit box office numbers this year. “Gone Girl” screenwriter and author Gillian Flynn has mentioned the media circus surrounding Laci Peterson’s disappearance, and later murder, as a huge influence on the novel and subsequent film.
Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a crime profiteer, makes even bolder comments on the position of news and sensationalism in true crime. Gyllenhaal plays a videographer often at the bloodiest, most virulent scenes available in Los Angeles who sells his footage to news stations, often arranging scenes to maximize the scandal factor. The premise alone—that news stations and individuals exploit death and crime for profit—is an extraordinary indictment of the American public. The irony that the entertainment business, usually one not to shy from violence in any form (revisit Quentin Tarantino, “Game of Thrones,” HBO), is preaching the media business only highlights the distinction between the fictitious, corn-syrupy blood and the exploitation of IRL loss of real human beings.
Then there’s Serial, the immensely popular This American Life podcast that is redefining what it means to report on and offer some form of journalism/entertainment hybrid. Serial takes the tropes of investigative reporting and true crime and turns them into an amalgamation of the two—one that has apparently proved addicting to enough to listeners that it recently broke an iTunes record with 5 million downloads. The podcast follows host Sarah Koenig as she and a team of trained journalists investigate and report on the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. The entertainment is not in the details of the murder or the psychopathy of the (still unknown) killer, but rather the slow reveal by Koenig of details she herself is just learning as she plays the role of investigator, interviewing a myriad of sources and sifting through documents. Instead of journalism for entertainment, it is journalism as entertainment.
What we forget (myself included) or neglect to mention, is that Hae Min Lee’s life was actually lost, violently and prematurely, no matter who did it or what interesting twists and turns the investigation afterwards revealed. Recently, her brother took to Reddit to remind the public of this. In a “Do not AMA,” he says [sic] “TO ME ITS REAL LIFE. To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI.” His accusation is, unfortunately, pretty accurate. 15 years ago, he lost a sister. Today, he must revisit that loss as millions of people, myself included, drudge up the details of what was most probably the worst day of his life.
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