HLNTV: Hate and the Modern-day Gladiator Ring

Posted on June 24, 2013


With the Jodi Arias trial kicking off this week, people are prepping for huge parties. Bags of chips and buckets of onion dip are flying off store shelves. Fans are sporting their favourite coloured ribbons and pom poms. And, as with any lynch mob, the more, the merrier.

Sounds ludicrous, right?

Well, it may be closer to reality than you think.

The rise in “crime entertainment” is indicative of our lust for the hero/villain archetypes that have grown far beyond their expression through sports or fiction. Our fascination, which begins in our youth with fairy tales (or comics), is seized upon by producers of competition-based reality shows like Survivor, American Idol or even the Olympics. The broadcasts feature heart-felt (rather than vilifying) back stories about its competitors. Viewers tend to create their own villains, perpetuated through scandalous stories in tabloid news, online forums or social media.

Cheers, tears at Arias 1st-degree murder verdict

d Cheers, tears at Arias 1st-degree murder verdict outside of Maricopa Courtroom

In contrast, we have crime shows or live trials on HLNTV — a network that is synonymous with tossing such niceties aside and going for the jugular. What’s even worse? They do so while purporting to give viewers the latest “news” and “facts” about a criminal trial.

Nancy Grace turns these stories into sordid tales that pit saintly prosecutors (heroes) against evil defendants (villains) for a bloody brawl. In essence, public trials are turned into gladiator-style matches for hate mobs, “rock star” prosecutors (also here) and a parade of circus antics like mock juries, pseudo-psych analyses and crime scene re-enactments. None of this is done to further our understanding of the crime or gain a more balanced view about the people involved — but to stir up dark emotions for increased profits and public spectacle.

In 2011, journalist Erik Kain, wrote a biting critique on the media and entertainment “crime” TV in his article Bread and Circuses: Reality TV has no Place in Our Criminal Justice System. It was written in response to the circus surrounding the Casey Anthony Trial, but also to the tragic and fatal shooting of 7-year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones during the taping of an episode for A&E’s First 48 Hours. [For updates on this case please read here and here.] At the end of the article Kain writes:

From small claims court to the trial of a mother accused of murdering her daughter, our appetite for spectacle shows no signs of letting up.

Whether this appetite leads to more tough-on-crime policies, a general numbness to government abuse, or the killing of children in raids-gone-bad, it will certainly not achieve the media’s purported service. The media should help us understand the nature of these crimes and seek to unearth whatever truths lie just out of sight. Journalists should give us perspective and context and hold all parties accountable. They should not sensationalize and dramatize or put the lives of innocent people at risk.

Unfortunately this stuff sells tickets.

Button for sale on ebay

Button for sale on ebay

Tickets aren’t the only thing this stuff sells. In the case of the Arias trial, the profiteering has escalated to melodramatic and maladaptive proportions. When I say “maladaptive” I am referring to the hate for Arias being so inflated that it leaves no room for reasoned debate or unbiased reporting.

Instead, we are served a circus ring of Travis Alexander supporters that (dis)grace us with their presence on the revolving hate set of HLNTV — hate for Arias, her family or anyone who speaks out on her behalf (i.e. expert witnesses, friends or defense attorneys). In fact, HLN has turned this trial into a team sport with rogue commentators who perpetuate an imaginary tale of good versus evil.

Justice 4 TravisOn one side of the gladiator ring we have Team Justice4Travis. A stormy sea of blue ribbons who lynch the opposing team with Facebook page (OccupyHLN, in particular) or twitter account suspensions or post offensive spoof pictures of Arias getting the needle. On the other side is a more “disorganized” and eclectic  group ranging from die-hard Jodi supporters to those who are expressing their distaste at tabloid TV and questioning the fairness of a highly publicized trial.

Kain cites three major causes of concern raised by Ken at Popehat regarding the culture of entertainment that has risen up around the criminal justice system:

1. Promotion of ignorance: The circus culture encourages the media to offer sound-bite-based, exciting, controversial, and “interesting” explanations for complex issues. Those explanations are rarely complete, accurate, or fair. The media therefore promotes ignorance about the criminal justice system — the mechanism by which some of our most important rights are determined.

2. Promotion of Unquestioned Government Power: The circus culture naturally seeks swift, exciting, simple resolution — like the bad guy being caught, conclusively proved guilty, and punished in the 42 minutes of a TV drama. The media coverage encourages that attitude — and therefore encourages citizens to be impatient of anything that’s not cinematic and angry at anything that seems to interfere with a 42-minute resolution. But “swift and cinematic” favors unquestioning acceptance of government claims, not careful testing of the sufficiency of government evidence, and certainly not respect for rights or the rule of law. The trial-as-circus culture promoted by the media for its own financial benefit is all about promoting the age-old “tough on crime” mindset that constitutional and statutory rights are merely devices by which sleazy defense lawyers evade justice.

3. Promotion of Misconduct: The trial-as-circus atmosphere, with its attendant big money, brings the nuts, the con artists, and the crooks out of the woodwork. Crazy people show up claiming to be witnesses. Minor witnesses exaggerate or change what they saw in pursuit of their fifteen minutes and a book deal. Lawyers abandon their ethical duties in pursuit of a quick buck.

– Roman Gladiators

What’s at stake here is a defendant’s right to a fair trial — and the sabotaging of the very mechanisms that determine our rights as citizens (as stated above).

For example, the Justice4Travis lynch mob is angry that a jury was unable to agree on the death penalty. But shouldn’t we respect the jury process here? As per the judge’s directive, each juror was asked to make their own decision about the mitigating factors. Yet, afterwards, jurors came forward to either defend themselves or “make friends” with an angry public:

  • One openly mouthed “I’m sorry” to the Alexander family.
  • An alternative juror posed for pictures with HLN pundits and jumped on the Justice4Travis bandwagon only hours after the trial ended (and has been whoring her twisted views on twitter and HLN ever since).
  • The jury foreman, William Zervakos, was moved to offer his perspective and decision making process ( and has since received vile messages and death threats via email).

I wonder which juror will take the first book offer? My guess goes to contestant number #2.

So, what is the lesson in all of this?

Trials should not be used for entertainment, commercial profit or to publicly promote a personal cause (revenge). If trials (or catching “villains”) are to be made public, then this mechanism must educate the public in ways that are ethical, and don’t cause injury or threats to innocent bystanders, a defendant, their lawyers or to key defense witnesses.

It is easy for any one of us to sit on our “spotted couches” and chant “death” while chomping on chips and dip. But trials should be informative, not spectacles or entertainment for lynch mobs. These are real tragedies that happen to real people. TV has turned crime into modern-day gladiator rings. When will this circus end? Stay tuned.

I would love to read your comments — so please, just hit the comment link and talk away.  Thank you!