Recently, television personality Nancy Grace, along with the rest of the national media, grabbed onto a story originating in the area where I live. The case involved a 20-year-old female Marine who was 8 1/2-months pregnant when she disappeared.
The Marine had accused a fellow leatherneck of raping her and was the chief witness against the man at a pending Article 32, which is like a grand jury procedure in the civilian world. The man she alleged was her attacker was not detained because, authorities said, he wasn't considered a flight risk.
The woman's family, unable to stir the interest they felt the case deserved, began talking to the media. And the media found the story compelling enough to follow.
The sheriff in the jurisdiction where the young woman was reported missing scheduled a press conference that ran in full on CNN. He also appeared on numerous news and tabloid-style shows, ranging from Nancy Grace's CNN-based "legal analysis" show to Geraldo Rivera's show on FOX News. At one point, the sheriff crossed verbal swords with a rather polite Rivera who asked some tough and very pointed questions about the investigation.
Grace was a different story. From the beginning she played to her audience, shaking with rage and righteous indignation. Grace's job isn't the same as a reporter's. Her show is less about balanced analysis and more about entertainment. Her mission is to pull in ratings and there's nothing wrong with that. If you don't keep your numbers up, sponsors won't buy ads. That's the point of a for-profit business.
However, many shows purported to center on the news have jumped to sensationalism, devoting countless hours to stories that a couple of decades ago would have been strictly the purview of supermarket tabloids. How else can anyone explain the bizarre hour-to-hour coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith or the minute examination of the lives of young, misguided pop stars?
So when Grace and the rest of the television media began their coverage of the case, like everyone else in this area, I tuned in — and listened with horror as she expounded on the utter worthlessness of the "military police and the police" in this case. It should be noted that neither the military nor the civilian police had anything to do with the investigation.
In addition, Grace produced a panel of experts, who really did seem to know their business, and demanded they back up her conclusions. Expert after expert failed to be manipulated and Grace predictably dismissed them — par for the course as far as these types of shows go, but I think Grace is by far the most egregious.
The moral to this story? The sheriff did himself no favors by continuing to meet with the press, especially after it became obvious that his remarks produced embarrassment on the behalf of locals who saw his department continuously portrayed as bumbling and inefficient — even though there are many, many dedicated and competent employees. What is even more puzzling is why the sheriff continued to appear on these shows long after it became obvious that doing so only fueled ridicule in the national media and did not move the investigation forward.
But this case does have some talking points worth mentioning. First, much of the national media sees your cases as ratings' springboards. They have a lot of airtime to fill and will swarm like bees to honey if there's something even halfway interesting going on in your jurisdiction. Second, the best answer in news conferences many times is "No comment." I think that's self-explanatory. Third, perhaps most important of all, stay off shows like Nancy Grace's. She's not out there to make you look good. Sticking your foot in your mouth up to your knee makes your officers and your constituency cringe with embarrassment.
A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in various sectors of law enforcement and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.