In the six months since Laci Peterson disappeared, the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and Chicago Tribune have run only a handful of stories about the death of the pregnant California woman.
But cable has gone bonkers, turning the Peterson case into an O.J.-style soap opera that never seems to fade. The case has been kicked around 79 times on Greta Van Susteren's Fox News show, 40 times on the "Abrams Report," 38 times on "Hannity & Colmes," 38 times on MSNBC's "Countdown," 37 times on "The O'Reilly Factor," 34 times on CNN's "Larry King Live" and 20 times on "Hardball." "It's a compelling story with many angles that people, judging from the ratings, seem to be interested in," says Fox News Executive Producer Bill Shine. "I'm responding to the ratings. . . . There's a serial quality to the story that has lent itself to the nature of 24-hour news."
MaryLynn Ryan, managing editor of CNN/US, says the network isn't trying to milk the tale of the Petersons. "They appeared to be a young married couple with their whole future ahead of them, and she disappeared. That got people hooked," Ryan says. "People have become invested in knowing the outcome of what happened to her."
Phil Griffin, an MSNBC vice president, likens the story to a Shakespearean drama: "Is it possible that he killed his pregnant wife? It's so horrific, so terrible, that you just want to know." As for the lack of newspaper coverage, Griffin says: "It's the kind of visceral story you can't get in newspapers, that plays better on TV."
The tragedy comes complete with a cast of characters -- from indicted husband Scott Peterson (who initially chatted up Diane Sawyer) to the Other Woman, Amber Frey (a massage therapist with nude photos in her past), to family members on both sides willing to appear on camera. Not to mention a roster of such talking heads as Court TV's Nancy Grace, radio host Gloria Allred (Frey's attorney), former Jack Kevorkian lawyer Geoffrey Fieger and ex-O.J. Simpson detective Mark Fuhrman. Larry King regular Mark Geragos has metamorphosed into Scott Peterson's lawyer. And there are plenty of leaks, such as a suggestion from Peterson's attorneys that the murder was committed by a satanic cult.
But unlike the murder investigation of Chandra Levy (who, like Laci Peterson, was from Modesto, Calif.), the newspapers mentioned earlier have never run a front-page story on the case. The Los Angeles Times, in Peterson's home state, has run three, and People and Newsweek have jumped on the sordid tale. Still, the main driving force has been cable news. All the networks went live Thursday with a preliminary hearing and a news conference in which Allred boasted that the court's gag order had not, quite evidently, been applied to her.
"We do Laci Peterson every 15 minutes and see the numbers go up," Bill O'Reilly told Vanity Fair's Maureen Orth for an article out this week.
On the broadcast networks, it's been a tale of two time slots. While the evening newscasts have barely dealt with the Peterson case, it's been the second-most-covered story on the network morning shows (after Iraq), drawing nearly seven hours of coverage, led by 21/2 hours on "Today."
"It's been a massive morning story," says Andrew Tyndall, whose Tyndall Report compiled the figures. "True crime is a staple of the morning shows," he says, with female victims -- from JonBenet Ramsey to Levy to Elizabeth Smart -- appealing to the heavily female audience.
"Her being pregnant around Christmas time is a really big deal."
The supermarket tabloids have been setting the pace, with the Globe buying family pictures and an interview for $12,000 from Laci's father, Dennis Rocha, according to Vanity Fair.
On June 5, the magazine noted, Fox's Van Susteren interviewed Hustler's Larry Flynt about his efforts to acquire topless pictures of Frey -- asking price: $100,000 -- which the program "kept flashing with a red banner over the breasts." On May 29, after a leaked autopsy report, Court TV's Lisa Bloom told MSNBC that Peterson lawyer Geragos "is floating unsupported theories and using the press to try to get witnesses and evidence to support his theories."
"Isn't it working?" said anchor Lester Holt. "We've spent the last 20 minutes talking about this."
The case all but vanished during the war in Iraq, but days after the regime collapsed, Laci Peterson's body washed up onshore, filling the post-Saddam void. "Would any attention be paid to it if there was a major story? No," says MSNBC's Griffin.
The Christian Science Monitor created quite a stir when it charged in April that Saddam Hussein's government had paid more than $10 million to George Galloway, a member of the British Parliament who opposed the war against Iraq.
Now the paper says the documents used to support the story were almost certainly forgeries. Editor Paul Van Slambrouck has apologized to Galloway and to readers.
"We strive daily to be truth tellers," Van Slambrouck wrote. "That is our way of blessing mankind. On this story, we erred." The Monitor had claimed the papers were discovered in the Baghdad home of one of Hussein's sons, Qusay. But in the sort of examination that might have come in handy sooner, the paper found the Arabic text inconsistent with Baghdad bureaucratese and a chemical analysis found that documents dated 1992 and 1993 were actually written in recent months.
The Labor lawmaker last week sued London's Daily Telegraph, which reported similar allegations. But Editor Charles Moore says his paper relied on a different set of papers and that "our documents are not forged."
The Santa Cruz, Calif., Sentinel has run an astounding three front-page corrections on a story about local nonprofit agencies, which erred on details of loans, audits, deficits and even a photo caption. "We were not quick enough in detailing what the errors were and what the truth was," writes Editor Tom Honig, who has accepted the resignation of reporter Jeanene Harlick.
The Palm Beach, Fla., Post may be the only newspaper to drop Martha Stewart's syndicated column over charges that she conspired to block an insider-trading investigation.
"If any columnist were indicted for anything resembling lying, we would suspend the columnist until the matter was resolved," says Jan Tuckwood, associate editor for features. Newsday and 200 others are still running Stewart's musings, according to the Long Island paper.
Tuckwood's move has drawn little reaction: "I get more calls when the crossword puzzle is wrong. . . . The last column of hers we ran had a low-fat hummus recipe. We don't feel deprived."
"The court seems highly unlikely to disturb its ruling in Bowers with Powell's replacement by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and the addition of Justice David H. Souter." -- The Washington Post, Oct. 26, 1990.
Kennedy wrote and Souter joined last week's Supreme Court decision overturning the Bowers ruling that had upheld a ban on same-sex sodomy.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.