Screen shot of the latest murder trial that aired endlessly last month

Governments fall, wars erupt, refugees suffer, but whenever I come back to the United States, there is always one constant story in the news: someone somewhere in America has been killed in bizarre, often sexualized circumstances and the trial will be everywhere.

Ever since the OJ simpson case in the mid 1990s, followed soon after by the killing of child beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey, I cannot remember a time when a murder mystery trial was absent from US airwaves.

And over the years, American audiences have become accustomed to the sight of the same trial experts, former district attorneys and retired FBI agents on their screens, speculating animatedly and often indignantly about the minutiae of such cases. What was the motive; what is the forensic evidence? Was the witness lying? What was the look on the defendants face? What will the jurors think; what will the judges think?

Framed by glitzy graphics and special segment music, the experts were droning on and on in one news program after another this month, following me to every hotel room, airport lobby and even taxi cab television during my recent trip to the US. The fixation this season: an Arizona woman stabbed and shot her secret lover multiple times. No need to glorify the case by going into details.

Because why should American audiences obsess over the killing of one person in the most random circumstances when they are indirectly engaged in the killing of thousands of civilians every year through their tax-dollar funded military invasions, drone strikes and private contract forces?   Why should US news organizations feed audiences a series of cheap thrills when they are abandoning their role of providing a public service by educating viewers about issues they can actually impact at the ballot box.  

Atlanta airport

This is not to say internal crimes should not be covered. Murder rates have reached epidemic levels in some US cities such as Chicago, where over 40 are killed every month in homicides and gang violence. Yet in-depth reporting of these stories is seldom when compared to the wall-paper coverage that propels a sexy murder mystery. Why? For one, it costs a lot of money to send reporters and researchers out into the field to come back with original content. It’s much cheaper to fill air time with fleets of lawyers and retired experts, who will talk off the top of their head without much compensation except a chance to promote their latest book or business.

It is easy to scoff at this trend in mindless infotainment as purely American from a place like Lebanon where geo-political battles are constantly in the news and people have more ‘serious’ priorities. But any close inspection of conflict reporting in Lebanese newscasts reveals very similar trends in cost-cutting and visceral titillation.

Like the character-driven appeal of US murder mysteries, Lebanese broadcasters stack their bulletins with the soap operas of Lebanese political and business elites. Whose homes have they visited tonight? Or have they been receiving guests? Others will be jet-setting to foreign capitals. But have they been welcomed or summoned? Do they look confident or tired? Who is paying their bills?

Not only does this gossip consume half-hour evening news bulletins, the political dramas fill Lebanon’s airwaves morning, noon and night, from news ‘analysis’ shows that begin at 9AM to talk shows that extend beyond midnight. All the while, there will be much pontificating by experts, lawyers, retired and current members of government and political strategists. This fleet of talking heads will appear for hours on end, day after day, with little cost to the station. Rather than having to actually send reporters into the field to research or investigate, the court of experts will appear for free, in exchange for the airtime to promote their associates and employers.

Much like the United States, the coverage focuses on personalities over public issues. The sideshow of statements, reactions and counter reactions leaves precious little air time left for reporting on the malfunctioning of services and institutions, decreasing standards of living, falling employment and rampant corruption.   

Citizens deserve journalism that questions authority and searches deep for the type of accountability that empowers behavior at the ballot box. But instead major media organizations in both countries have become addicted to the cheap drama that fuels distraction, distraction that helps pave the way for wars– both with others and among ourselves– that enrich few at the cost of many.    

This column was originally published in this month’s issue of Bold Magazine

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