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Forget Bush-Kerry. What About Scott-Laci?

A Trial Galvanizes, and Polarizes, the Media

By William Booth and Kimberly Edds
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 2, 2004; Page A01

REDWOOD CITY, Calif., Nov. 1 -- The story has dominated cable television, employed an army of talking heads and gone on for what seems like an eternity. And this week it is coming to a close.

Not the election -- the Scott Peterson trial.

Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, and stepfather, Ron Grantski, right, enter the courthouse yesterday for the prosecution's closing arguments. (Pool Photo Tony Avelar)

_____From Findlaw_____
Criminal Information (People v. Scott Peterson)

The story of how the pretty and pregnant Laci Peterson went missing on Christmas Eve 2002 and her fertilizer salesman husband was charged with murder after her body and that of her unborn son, Conner, were found in San Francisco Bay is probably known to every sentient being in America. As is the fact that Scott Peterson's phone conversations with his former lover were recorded.

For almost two years, the buildup and the trial have been followed relentlessly by such cable talkers as Larry King, Greta Van Susteren and Dan Abrams and their interchangeable panels of legal analysts. The story has made the cover of People magazine and has been a constant fixture on talk radio, cable and some network newscasts, and in the tabloids. There were segments today on "Good Morning America" and the "Today" show. A Google search spits out more than 141,000 hits in 0.14 seconds. There's been a TV movie, "Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story" on USA Network, which garnered more than 5 million viewers, the biggest audience for a USA telefilm in two years.

But if ever there was a story that divided the media into two camps, it's the Peterson case, which is expected to go to the jury this week after a trial now in its 23rd week. "Serious" news organizations generally stayed away from the story. Even in television, there was a division.

Andrew Tyndall, who tracks network news coverage on his Tyndallreport.com Web site, said the Peterson case has been one of the most heavily covered stories the last two years on daytime cable and the morning network shows -- but has received relatively light coverage on TV's evening news hours.

"What is quite apparent is the enormous difference between the network morning shows and their evening news shows," Tyndall said. "It's black and white."

Why have Laci and Scott created such interest -- and such a divide?

Here's what the news directors and media critics say: The victim was young, female, middle-class and pregnant -- and her husband appears to be the villain (or at least a cad; that he cheated on her is not in dispute). And once the public seized on the case, embraced the families' pain and the did-he-do-it aspects, it was a ratings boost that cost relatively little to cover and produced the endless back-and-forth of trial dissection by proxy that can keep a story running for months.

"Laci Peterson was the all-American girl," said Jim Hammer, a Fox News legal analyst and former prosecutor doing instant commentary on the Monday morning proceedings outside the courtroom. Hammer and a half-dozen other reporters stood ready to face the pool cameras that have made it easy for any media outlet to grab a quick sound bite or two.

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