How Nancy Grace has reinvented journalism's 'Sob Sister'

I just had a meme dream.

As I watched angry citizens outside an Orlando courthouse outraged at the acquittal of Casey Anthony, I could not help but remember the scene from the 1931 film "Frankenstein," in which townspeople light their torches in the town square and set off to track down the monster.

These torchbearers don't take to the hills on their own. They are directed by the invective of a hammy burgomaster, who, if he wore a blond wig, would look more than a little like Nancy Grace.

Professional vigilante and mawkish sentimentalist, Nancy is full of something, but it's not grace. While accusing other lawyers of avarice and opportunism, she makes her own fortune by angry denunciations of defense efforts, almost always accompanied by lachrymose attention to the plight of the victim, especially if she is white, female, pretty -- and missing.

Grace is nothing new in American culture. She is a "sob sister," a stock figure that is more than a century old and is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "a journalist, especially a woman, employed as a writer or an editor of sob stories."

A sob story is a form of emotional pornography, "a tale of personal hardship or misfortune intended to arouse pity." The audience for the sob story has traditionally been female, and Grace's callers are mostly women who tend to genuflect at her altar before asking a question. They call her Nancy; she calls them "dear."

Just as there was a race difference in response to the verdict in the trial of O.J. Simpson, I have sensed something of a gender difference in the response to this trial and verdict. It appears as if many women (and some men, of course) anticipated a first degree murder conviction, and seemed bitterly disappointed with the verdict.

What to make of this? On the "Today" show this morning, women experts from law, psychology, and the media seemed to agree that a predictable antipathy toward Casey Anthony has come from mothers, who express the standard sentiment (another meme) that a mother must do everything in her power to protect her child.

They also recognized the dark side of this sentiment, the fear and guilt that so many mothers feel about their own anger at their children, or those moments when they dreamed of being unburdened of the responsibilities of motherhood.

Where is Carol Gilligan when we need her? According to her famous feminist reinterpretation of theories of moral justice, men are more likely to be governed in their judgments by rules, while women are more likely to defend relationships as central to the moral law.

I have lost count of the women who preceded their opinions of Casey Anthony with something like, "As a mother, I feel that she should have protected that baby, not killed her."

But let's hold that noble standard against another set of complex realities in America, the tension between the puritanical and the libertine. This tension existed before the founding of America, of course, expressed most famously in the Greek tragedy of Medea, who slaughters her children because of her husband's infidelity.

The American equivalent is the Salem Witch Trials. One poor woman named Sarah Good was accused of witchcraft for "rejecting the puritanical expectations of self-control and discipline." This was evident when she chose to "scorn children instead of leading them toward the path of salvation."

Another woman was accused of having sex with a demon, and I am reminded that Nancy Grace punctuated her tirade after the verdict with the comment that "The Devil is dancing."

According to the Wikipedia account, the American witch trial sensibility is marked by "moral panic, mass hysteria, and lynching." Hysteria is a particularly interesting word in this context because it comes from the Latin word hyster, which means "womb."

Nancy Grace: former prosecutor, hanging judge in the land of the hanging chad, witch hunter, sob sister, meme maker.

Rather than fan the flames of moral outrage, Nancy Grace and her minions should be reminding citizens of why they should respect -- rather than revile -- the American system of justice.

Case in point, there is a young American woman -- about the same age as Casey Anthony -- who is unjustly imprisoned in Italy at this very moment. Her name is Amanda Knox.  A corrupt legal system wants her to spend the rest of her life in jail for a murder she most likely did not commit. And now, here in America, we have another young woman who in our legal system has been acquitted of  a heinous crime a lot of us think she probably did commit. If you were accused of a crime, which country would you rather live in?

There is one more case to be made here. That Nancy Grace is in some measure responsible for the acquittal she so despises. How can that be? Who is most responsible over the last three years of turning Casey Anthony (the "Tot Mom") into a celebrity? How has she gained one name status -- Casey. Who has essentially made Casey the star of a long-running reality show? She may not be OJ Simpson or Robert Blake, but she has become no less a media celebrity.

How hard is it to convict a celebrity of murder? The record, Nancy, speaks for itself.

We continued this conversation in a live chat about what makes the Casey Anthony case such a compelling story. You can replay the chat here ...

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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