Thursday, July 7, 2011

It's a Tabloid World

One of the rather sad facts of my summer existence is that I spend about 2-1/2 months a bit tuned out from the rest of the world. Gone are my morning spent watching CNN while I get ready for work. Gone is the time spent listening to NPR on the drive to school. Sure, CNN is usually playing on the tv at the gym, but since I workout without my glasses on, it's generally just a blurry screen of people in suits yapping away while Phish or the Red Hot Chili Peppers serenade me through another 45 minutes on the elliptical machine. If it weren't for The Daily Show still having new shows during the summer and my weekly visits with Bill Maher, I probably wouldn't have a clue what was going on in the world during the summer.

And so, for the past several weeks, I have been pretty blissfully ignorant of our latest media circus going on down in Florida -- the Casey Anthony trial. I honestly didn't even really know it was happening until a week or so ago when I happened to pick up an issue of Time to keep me company on the elliptical (during that dark period when Elle Woods was dead and Bruiser had yet to join the family) and read an article about the trial being a media obsession. What I picked up from that article was that Americans were obsessed with this trial (and I have to admit I'm not 100% sure why -- Casey Anthony certainly isn't the first woman ever put on trial for killing her own child. Sadly, I think that likely happens just about every day in this country) and that the case against her was flimsy at best. The thing is that we as viewers (and I lump myself into this although, again, I didn't watch a single second of trial coverage) decided from second one that Casey Anthony was guilty and that public verdict seemed to stem from the gut rather than evidence. She sure seems guilty, so she must be guilty -- proof be damned.

The thing is, though, that we have set up in our society a system that offers us a pretty tremendous amount of legal protection should we be suspected of committing a crime. The burden of proof does not lie on us, the accused, but rather on those accusing us of the crime. Gut feelings, instincts -- that's not evidence. Anyone who's ever seen (or read or acted in or directed) Twelve Angry Men knows that guilt has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and if you look at the evidence actually presented in this case, there is nothing BUT reasonable doubt involved no matter what our guts tell us.

I found out that Casey Anthony was found innocent of the murder charges the way a lot of other did -- through angry, vitriolic posts on Facebook. Almost instantly, there seemed to be the formation of a group called "F*** Casey Anthony." Other posts condemned her to hell, seemed to wish violence on her, calling her a "bitch" and a "whore". Others took a more compassionate approach, focusing on the little girl who died and setting up groups in her honor, sending out invitations for people to turn their porch lights on in remembrance of her. I saw her referred to as an "angel" more than once.

This whole thing bothers me on so many different levels. I am always turned off by this tendency we have as a public body to swing violent in our rhetoric on any issue. Whether Casey Anthony is guilty or innocent (and like a lot of people, yeah, my gut tells me she probably is not innocent), this ugly, nasty, brutish response to the verdict makes my stomach clench. It's that sort of mob mentality that could very likely doom us. Yes, we have a right to feel frustrated when we feel that an erroneous judgment has taken place. Free speech, yada yada yada. But when that frustration becomes vented in vile, violent ways, it ends up making us look like every ugly accusation that has ever been leveled against Americans. We should be better than that. Rhetoric like this is the kind of thing that gives some psycho the idea that it would be okay to open fire at a crowded political event.

Casey Anthony is an example of what is both right and wrong with our legal system. Yeah, I said right and wrong. Casey Anthony was found not guilty because the prosecution didn't do their job. They didn't present the evidence that directly linked Casey to the death of her daughter. (From what I understand, they couldn't even really prove HOW the little girl died.) They relied on emotional appeals to the jury rather than the factual appeals that a guilty verdict needs. Casey Anthony being found not guilty is a good thing in that it sends the message to prosecutors that they need to have all their factual ducks in a row and that juries are smart enough to know when they are being emotionally manipulated -- and that it takes more than a good tug at the heartstrings to reach a guilty verdict. Casey Anthony being found not guilty is a good thing in that it's going to force prosecutors to look at their cases very carefully and a lot of unjustly accused people may never have to spend a day in court and a lot of very guilty people may be sent away a lot easier because the prosecution is going to have to work that much harder. This case may lead to a strengthening of our legal system that's already, flaws aside, a pretty darn good one when you hold it up to what happens in courts around the world.

While it is heartening to see the outpouring of emotion for Anthony's daughter, there is also something about that which leaves me feeling a little unsettled as well. Maybe it's just the idea that it took her death for the world to rally together to support this little girl. There are countless kids out there that live in dangerous, abusive homes. They are beaten, neglected, and emotionally ravaged each and every day. Those are the kids we need to lift up. Those are the kids we need to protect. If the death of Caylee Anthony teaches us anything, it's that this village needs to step up and do a better job in making sure our kids are safe. Don't turn on your porch lights for them after it's too late. Turn on your porch lights and save these kids before we're caught up in yet another tabloid sensational trial. If someone had realized Caylee was in danger and done something sooner, perhaps our Facebook walls would be filled with a lot less hate and a lot more compassion.