Loss of innocence

Back in the day before the 24-hour news hole, not too many years ago, it was customary to consider a person accused of a crime innocent until proven guilty. In today’s fast-paced world, that sort of thinking has become obsolete, as the recent media frenzy concerning missing Modesto housewife Laci Peterson demonstrates.

Hundreds of people—men, women and children—disappear each year in the United States. Some want to disappear, some fall victim to foul play, and some return home safely. Few of these cases attract national media attention. But every so often, a case with the right combination of good looks and violence (in a word, a case that is telegenic) turns up, and the media go on yet another JonBenet Ramsey-like binge.

Laci Peterson’s case apparently had enough of the right stuff. She and her husband Scott were a young, successful, middle-class couple expecting their first child early this year. Scott claims that he last saw his wife on the morning of Christmas Eve, as he was leaving to go fishing at the Berkeley Marina. Laci told him she was going to walk the dog that morning. When Scott returned from the marina, the dog was home, but Laci had vanished.

With memories of the missing Yosemite sightseers and Chandra Levy fresh in everyone’s minds, the national news networks pounced on the story of the missing Modesto mother-to-be. It didn’t take long to find a suspect. Not too many days after Laci’s disappearance, local talk-radio host Mark Williams (KFBK-1530) appeared as a guest on one of the cable news shows and explained how many of his listeners were convinced that Scott Peterson had killed his pregnant wife.

The opinions of the talk-radio rabble were seconded across the cable-news spectrum, as “expert” panels composed of former prosecuting attorneys, criminal “profilers” and various other members of law enforcement nodded their heads in agreement. Yes, that Scott Peterson, he sure looks guilty.

The boundaries between justice and journalism, broadcasting and surveillance, crime and entertainment, have blurred. At this writing, the police haven’t named Scott as a suspect in his wife’s disappearance, but they have told the press that they are trying to connect him to another disappearance, a female college student missing since 1996. It seems Scott attended the same university. They haven’t actually found a connection yet, but they’re trying.

Shouldn’t such a connection be found before it is reported? Shouldn’t the accused be given the benefit of the doubt, the presumption of innocence? With the constantly pressing need to fill that 24-hour news hole, these are questions no longer asked by most media gatekeepers. Does it matter?

Probably not.

We all know he’s guilty anyway.