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The Year of the Rats

By Tina Brown
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page C01

Two thousand and four was the year when malfeasance discovered niche marketing. There was something for everybody in the rap sheets. Sports fans had Kobe Bryant. Music fans had Michael Jackson. Park Avenue had Martha Stewart. Boardrooms had Conrad Black. Hollywood had Michael Eisner, Michael Ovitz and the shareholders of Disney facing off in Delaware over Ovitz's $140 million payoff.

For cable TV the Scott Peterson trial was the clear winner. Of the 366 days this year, the case was on "Larry King Live" no fewer than 33 times. The liberating lesson was the same one the networks learned a few seasons back with the reality show explosion: You don't need a big name to have a big hit.

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Take the ongoing Robert Blake case. As a B-list celebrity and the erstwhile star of "Baretta," Blake may have looked a promising bet when he was charged with firing a vintage World War II handgun at wife Bonny's head in 2001, but he's old and weird and doesn't play in the demo. Plus you can't win the Lifetime audience with a victim who was a lousy grifting mother with a long record of fleecing rich men and a thriving mail-order porn business. In death as in life Bonny Lee Bakley remains doomed to be a wannabe star. The same was true of the spicy-seeming murder of Wall Street man-about-town Ted Ammon. Location, location, location is usually the watchword of a society crime with legs, and this one happened on a swell estate in East Hampton. But Ammon's murderer Danny Pelosi was a venal, unmysterious scumbag, reminiscent of '90s knucklehead Joey Buttafuoco without the redeeming Long Island Lolita Amy Fisher as love interest. Even so, it's kept local hacks busy.

Trash culture may have reached its apogee on that hectic New York day in mid-December when the Scott Peterson death sentence and Danny Pelosi verdict collided head-on with the revelation of would-be Homeland Security Secretary Bernie Kerik's love nest.

The demand for sensation is so great that the system will now happily invent celebrities to fill any gaps. What matters is to be able to identify with the demographics. The Petersons didn't have the kind of alienating baggage that weighs down the Blake entourage. Laci could be cast as the perfect white suburban mother-to-be. Scott could star as the perfect Everyman louse. Amber Frey, the mistress who did the right thing, was blessed with a porn star name and the Playboy profession of masseuse. It was a package dreamed up for the female rage audience of afternoon TV.

By the time The Process was finished, the sunny housewife from Modesto married to the cute fertilizer salesman with a roving eye was almost as big in victim terms as Nicole Brown Simpson in the O.J. case. All it took was the blonde factor, and class.

That was the only major difference between the disappearance of Laci and the similar but largely unremarked October 2002 death of the Hawaiian, working-class Raye Rapoza -- a "mystery" that was solved when her husband, Eddie, was charged with driving his seven months' pregnant wife and 4-year-old daughter off a Moss Beach cliff into the ocean. Bigger than a lack of suspense though, the Rapoza case didn't have a Caucasian female lead. The Peterson case had two: Amber with the hair and Laci with the smile, the two all-American Marys of cable TV.

I predict a short run for the latest piece of Grand Guignol that's currently screaming through the tabs: the case of the doggie-loving, accused fetus-snatching murderess Lisa Montgomery, which surfaced just in time for Christmas. There's a lifestyle problem. Who can really relate to a Kansas-dwelling rat-terrier enthusiast who decides that rather than go through the hassle of adoption procedures she will drive across the state line to Missouri and rip the baby out of the womb of 23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a pregnant dog breeder she met in the Internet chat room frequented by the rat-terrier set? In murder-appeal it is to the Peterson case what Jerry Springer is to Oprah -- a daytime freak show at its most alienatingly grotesque.

Who will return from celebrity disgrace? The Michael Jackson circus coming in the first half of next year may still end in acquittal. At this point he may be too bizarre even for prison. Kobe Bryant seems to have hurt his reputation more lastingly with his fans by dissing Shaquille O'Neal than by being accused of rape. Conrad Black will probably turn into mad King Ludwig. Bernie Kerik will have to start a new career as head of security for a five-star hotel in Jeddah, if he doesn't wind up in the big house for his organized crime connections.

Only Martha Stewart is poised to be bigger than ever. Her trial had it all: The lifestyle, the name recognition and the ever-present cliffhanger of whether we could get her to acknowledge hubris.

All that '90s perfection in the kitchen was getting old anyway. In jail she's been able to retool her market positioning on a captive focus group. As CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin told me, "She seems to have done more deals not talking business during prison visits at Alderson than most of her male counterparts do from the Four Seasons." The microwave in her cell is already cooking up Act 3 from a dish full of crow. And she'll be coming out in March blonder than ever.

©2004, Tina Brown

© 2004 The Washington Post Company