Sunday, July 30, 2006

TV: What Could Be Lower Than A Cesspool?

Friends in the broadcast news biz (at all three networks and one cable network) have dubbed Primetime Live the herpes of "news" magazines due to it's tendancy to disappear and then, like an unsightly outbreak, reappear. One of us avoids it (Ava), the other made a point to watch it last when Daniel Ortega was interviewed. For the younger (or older, but uninformed) crowd asking "Who?" -- that was nearly seventeen years ago.

See that was the "value" of Primetime Live, you could go nearly seventeen years without ever being interested in it and not feel as though you'd missed out any. You'd hear about the laughable interviews and how someone posed (not like a model) -- onscreen. Frequently shocked -- onscreen. Frequently at a loss -- onscreen. Reality was much more lively and the ridicule started long before a misguided attempt to "heal the nation" via an attempted lynching of the Dixie Chicks.

Primetime Live had more rumors swirling around it then than the death of Marilyn Monroe and for good reason. It'll make a hilarious film one day and, if the current ratings system is still around, look for it to be rated NC17.

But that was the old Primetime Live, laughable, a public eye sore in need of a beautification program, but not quite the cesspool that is 20/20. Primetime, Primetime Live, Primetime Wednesday, Primetime Thursday, it's had a variety of names.

The mag format in primetime breaks down as follows:

60 Minutes -- trying to remain true to its news roots (on shaky ground, but still leading the pack)
Dateline -- Access Hollywood for a full hour
48 Hours -- Vanity Fair with streaming video
20/20 -- Where the wrong (right-wing) is broadcast as right
Primetime Live? General consensus: Broadcast herpes and nothing to get too concerned about because whatever format they "settle" on will be gone in another few months.

Now those are our rankings and some of our news biz friends disagree on the placement of Dateline. We accept that it's not a news show and that their relentless pursuit of celebrities leads to no news value but it can be entertaining in a stuff your face with sugar for an hour sort of way. We tease and joke with our pals at Dateline (who actually are fun people) and never take the program as seriously as they wish the nation would.

So some might bump 48 Hours a notch above Dateline. But 20/20 would always remain in the gutter -- after all, what could be lower than a cesspool?

Try Primetime Thursday night which seems determined to act as a counter to the attempts of Bonnie Fuller and others to mainline the tabloids. Primetime wants to bring lurid and depraved to America. This isn't today's Star with diet tips or fat and unflattering photos of various celebs. This is the tabloids of old -- the ones that thought photos of Elvis in his coffin meant they were journalists, that thought listing the peccadillos of serial killers meant they were "reporting."

For an hour of primetime, PTL felt the most pressing stories of the day, the ones America needed to know about to be informed citizens, were a tale of a con man and Andrea Yates.

The con man? That's a Martin Bashir "report" and that tells you all you need to know -- superficial, full of furrowed brows, as he uses his pompous face to attempt to convince you that the trash he's reporting is news. It's not. It never will be. Think of it Crime Sprees of the Plain & Stupid and Bashir as this decade's Robin Leach.

If you need a travelogue of a locale your life will never visit, the useless topics that interest Bashir will provide you distraction if not entertainment. It'll also lower the news bar yet again because, though this show has no relationship to the news, it presents itself as news. So what's with the use of footage in Bashir's report? Re-enactment's are supposed to be labeled as such. Primetime is supposed to be a news magazine. So why the need to "illustrate" a purported car crash with footage of oncoming head lights -- or are we supposed to believe that Bashir was present with crew? It's those sort of "stunts" that illustrate why Bashir's not well liked in the ABC news department. Possibly dubbing the segment "American Imposter" was a comment on passing any of this off as news?

But the lead was Andrea Yates and though we feared it would be cringe worthy, we knew there were issues they could explore that could make this story actually have some merit.

All points worth raising were ignored.

For any late arrivals, Andrea Yates drowned her five children (2001) and was found guilty (2002) but, last week, a jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. That's the back story briefly and a bit more than you may have caught from Primetime.

What did you get?

A doctor (female), early on, made the point that Rusty Yates was warned after the birth of the fourth child that Andrea Yates' severe postpartum depression should mean no more children. That doctor? She's barely onscreen.

A male doctor? He's on constantly. He pushes his belief that Andrea Yates was not criminally insane and plotted to kill her five children in some form of a rational mind. One of his reasons for that apparent belief is when (time frame) the children died. To back up his case, he has to note that Rusty Yates left for work and his mother was due to come by an hour later which Yates knew when she was left alone with the children. That actually is important to the story but Primetime wasn't interested in noting why it was important: there were orders not to leave Andrea Yates alone with the children.

To watch the "report" you might assume this was a scheduling error or something that couldn't be avoided. That's not the case. Rusty Yates took it upon himself to override medical advice. He decided that, despite doctors orders, Andrea Yates needed an hour alone with the children each morning and evening. He implemented that plan the week the children were drowned.

Bad call on Rusty Yates' part? Viewers don't get to decide because it's never reported. (The "imposter" non-story was far longer than the brief Yates report.) Now if you read CounterPunch, you're aware, thanks to Elaine Cassel, that another male doctor working for the prosecution got a little creative in the first trial:

Apparently, Yates was a "Law & Order" fan. Dietz surmised that her murderous plot was hatched after viewing a "Law & Order" episode in which a woman drowned her children in a bathtub and claimed post-partum depression as an insanity defense. The prosecutor hammered away at this point in his closing argument, arguing that Yates had wanted to kill her children because she was overwhelmed by them. This "Law & Order" episode, he argued, planted the seed for murdering her children and blaming it on her postpartum depression.
In fact, there was no such episode--as research by an investigative journalist who wrote for the show revealed.
The false testimony made a solid basis for appeal. Two appellate courts agreed that Dietz's testimony could have led to the guilty verdict, and ordered a new trial.

The above didn't make it into the TV "report."

What you got were home movies, false (and sanctimonious) pronouncements by Chris Cuomo that America had discovered/looked at mental illness for the first time due to Andrea Yates and a lot more nonsense. It wasn't reporting -- it was an attempt at televised closure.

One thing someone might want to explore (Primetime had no desire to) were the video tapes of a doctor for the prosecution supposedly assessing Andrea Yates. We weren't aware that badgering was a part of the mental health field, but then, with Guantanamo, we guess anything goes these days. If he'd been an attorney, there might not have been anything wrong with his "line of questioning" but we're having a hard time grasping how his actions correlated with healing.

He's asking leading questions and getting upset when he doesn't get the answers he wants. If a prosecutor acted that way with what appears to be an unstable Yates on the witness stand, he or she would most likely lose the jury in that exchange. It would be a mistake in strategy but in keeping with the legal field. Our point is we saw nothing "medical" about the doctor's conduct with Andrea Yates.

This doctor seems to be arguing that Andrea Yates is probably ill but that, in the moments before and when she killed her children, she was acting, on some level, rationally. It required 'planning,' he insists. (Yates drowned her children one at a time and then took them out of the tub after each drowning.) Apparently, he's looking for some some "crime of passion" instant reaction -- as though someone deranged can't kill in the midst of their insanity?

Is Andrea Yates insanse?

We're not doctors. Her defense was built around the argument that she was insane and, due to her own beliefs, felt that her children were going to grow up and go to hell. By killing them while they were children (the oldest was seven-years-old), the argument goes, she believed that she would be saving them -- having not yet 'sinned,' the 'innocents' would go to heaven.

Most of the time (including Thursday night on ABC) that's how the news (and "news") industry tends to present the argument.

One son, she explains in the tapes ABC aired (but didn't follow up on or even comment on), was, a vision told her, destined to become a serial killer. Another son? "Homosexual prostitute."

Is that insane? Likening prostitution to killing? Likening serial killing to homosexuality? We think it's nuts. We think it's wack-job, nutso, cracked and insane.

We're also aware that a number of religious (and "religious") hold similar beliefs. We're also aware that a number of religions believe that children are 'spritually' innocent and pure (so do a number of pedophiles).

The statements she made (including the "homosexual prostitute" remark) might have a news organization (in less touchy times) explore the fanatisicm of some religious branches. That wasn't the case for Primetime. In fact, they took great strides to present Andrea Yates (but not Rusty Yates) as a follower of Michael Peter Woroniecki. What was the Yates lifestyle (at the end) but an continual embrace of Woroniecki's "teachings"? What were Rusty Yates' many statments about why the children were home schooled but a reflection of that sort of extremism?

America didn't learn a damn thing about mental illness from that case and the clue on that (for those puzzled) is Cuomo's need to preface the segment with the assertion that "many are shocked" by the fact that Andrea Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

At a time when the nation's so eager to demonize every Arab (including some who aren't Muslim) as religious extremists, maybe this would have been a good time to explore Christian extremism? Maybe raise the issue of the extreme intolerance within some branches and divisions of Christianity towards gays and lesbians (and towards women regardless of sexuality)?

Maybe it's time Rusty Yates faced a sit-down where he was confronted with each belief his wife held (or holds) and prodded to give an answer on if it differs from his own and, if so, how? She was apparently mentally ill, but she latched on to those extreme beliefs with her husband around.

Andrea Yates didn't watch a film or read a novel to get her ideas. Entertainment didn't "send a message." We both remember Joe Lieberman strutting through California many years ago to spit on everyone's face with his sanctimonious talk about the evils of the entertainment industry. We're not remembering him railing against the evils of religious extremism (non-Muslim variety). Yates appears to be a delusional woman. We couldn't pronouce her medically insane, but we're not uncomfortable with the diagnosis. (And would have voted in agreement with the jury on the verdict they delivered.)

What we are uncomfortable with is this notion (especially pushed by the prosecution's doctor) that she was just a mother under pressure who wanted to make her life a little easier by killing her children. While those mothers exist, that's not the real story with Andrea Yates.

Yates didn't one day decide that the world was this way and that. She was educated and indoctrinated into those extreme beliefs. Due to her own mental condition (and her family has a history of mental illness), she was more vulnerable to those beliefs. Are those beliefs going to come under Primetime's lens? Not on Thursday night.

Just as Rusty Yates got off with no examination, so did an extreme brand of religion that preaches hate and intolerance, the subjugation of women, go down the list. Just as the Justice Department and the media downplay examples of homegrown terrorists (example: the weapons stash and motives of the people operating out of Noonday, Texas).

A lot gets played down. Holier than thou politicos like Lieberman can rail against the violence of "Hollywood" but they're strangely silent on teachings (not entertainment) that endanger the country. And, again, note Elaine Cassel's point -- a "doctor" testified in the first trial that Yates got the idea where? From "television." And the press ran with it. It's a little easier to trash entertainment than it is religion which is probably why so many politicians pose relentlessly even though, last time we checked, no Joan of Arcadia fans killed anyone as a result of CBS cancelling that show. (And they were a devoted bunch.)

Watching the segment, what struck us the most was that this was Primetime's look at a recent case of parent-child murder.

Recent? Where's the William Lash III coverage?

As the segment concluded, unnamed friends were quoted by Cuomo as to the fact that as Yates improves mentally, she'll have to live with what happened. We don't doubt that. But we'd say that acknowledgement was far different from the nonsense of Robert Batterson (St. Louis Post-Dispatch): "William H. Lash III should not be remembered for this terrible last act." The act? Kiling his autistic son before he killed himself.

There are similarities here in that Lash and Yates both had upper-level education (Yates was a registered nurse, Lash a graduate of Harvard and Yale), both killed their children, and both were connected to the Bully Boy. Yates was apparently under the delusion that, following her murders, Bully Boy would perform an exorcism on her thereby ridding her of the demons, while Lash, of course, worked for the administration. That's probably as concrete as the connection some (media and politicians) attempted to push between Marilyn Manson and the events of Columbine. We doubt you'll hear the same posturing but if it had turned out Lash was a Law & Order fan, you better believe it would be time to trash "Hollywood" again.

But it's interesting the cases they are being made. Yates will always be identified (even to herself as she gets better, according to unnamed friends) as the killer of her children. Lash has a friend who wants to rush in and argue: Lash was a good man of worthy accomplishments and he loved his autistic son (Will Lash, whom Batterson can't even name until paragraph seven of his plea) that he killed (Batterson notes that in pargraph eighth -- earlier paragraphs are Lash's resume) so we shouldn't let this one incident color our memories/define our memories of Bill Lash.

Why shouldn't we? And why has the media largely looked the other way on this while there's been a nonstop feeding frenzy with regards to Andrea Yates? In a ridiculous op-ed, Susan Senator (Washington Post) appears to have missed the few facts that the media has covered. Such as the fact that his wife called the police, that she was locked out of the house. Senator's eager to tell you about her own struggles with her autistic child which, really, hasn't been a reported issue in the case of Lash. It's a nice diversion, it's just not reality.

Susan Senator wants to advocate for autism. A noble cause, no question. But apparently that means, to her, jumping onto any bandwagon she thinks will further her cause.

Since we're both friends with a woman with an autistic, teenage child, we'll note he's never atacked his mother. What does that have to do with Lash's case? Nothing. Because there's no suggestion that the child attacked either William Lash or his mother. But Susan Senator wants to rush in with grief counseling because, goodness my, there is an autism angle and this is her cause.

It's great that she's got a cause, it's lousy that she's creating a backstory for the murder of William Lash IV and the suicide of William Lash III where there's nothing in the public record to suggest that the child was murdered due to a violent attack (instigated by the child). She wants to trace the crime to autism without evidence (which hardly seems a way to advocate for autism -- she's old enough to remember the days when autistic meant locked away in an institution). She's arguing that autism (the stress of it on the parents) led to the crime which is questionable when applied to the Lash case.

What does autism have to do with it? Not a damn thing as reported thus far. And we find it appalling that she's suggesting it does. That's an easy out, isn't it? A man kills his child who is autistic and Susan Senator wants to rush in and tell us that she was attacked by her own child, she knows the stress from raising one and blah blah blah.

Along with our friend who has a teenage autistic son, we have another mutal friend whose child suffered from autism in early childhood (and was diagnosed with it) but did not suffer from it later in life. Though that's a rare case, it is true that there are stages of autism and Susan Senator might want to think about that before she rushes in to explain what William Lash III may have been going through in his final hours before murdering his own son.

That's what the column does. It reads like, "Let me butt in on this tragedy and share my own personal story which may or may not have anything to do with the Lash case but I'm an advocate!"

We take this issue very personally. We'll assume Susan Senator does and just doesn't grasp how harmful her column is not only to the Lash crime but also to the cause. One of us had a relative twice removed who suffered from autism. She spent the bulk of her life locked away on "medical orders" and only due to medical perceptions changing was she allowed to spend her final years with her family. (She was never violent towards self or others.)

So with that, and other experiences, we take tremendous offense that while William Lash III killed his autistic son, Susan Senator wants to push her cause by opening with a question of how to make sense of the murder of the child and then rushes to share that her son attacked her repeatedly when he was eleven. That has nothing to do with the Lash case. The wire reports (which is where the story was largely covered -- outside of the stray op-ed) have never made such an assertion.

"I am no stranger to hardship and struggle" she explains . . . from the cross she's built with her own two hands.

Is she a stranger to the Associated Press? They're the ones who primarily covered it and their coverage doesn't include the notion that Will Lash (William Lash IIII) ever attacked his father or mother. What coverage is she referring to? The coverage has been sparse but, from all accounts, the child wasn't the factor. The most recent news stories on it (written after the memorial) put it this way:

On the night of Thursday, July 13, following an altercation with his wife, William Lash III, 45, inexplicably shot and killed his autistic son William Lash IV, and then took his own life with the same shotgun. Friends, co-workers and family members were stunned that the man that they had known as a devoted father and husband could commit such an act.

That's consistent with the original reporting of the incident. He had "an altercation with his wife." Read on in that article and you'll see why we're so offended by Susan Senator's column -- "hundreds" turned out for William Lash III's memorial but "more than 200" was the number at the child's memorial. A child died. Senator's rushing in to 'explain' William Lash III -- the killer. He seems to have more than enough people defending him. His memorial seems to have brought in a huge crowd. The same size crowd wasn't overly concerned with the victim, Will Lash. But then, if they attend his memorial maybe they won't be able to deny that the father's murder of the son is the defining moment of the father's life.

This isn't a traffic ticket. This isn't shoplifting or a DUI bust. It's not even a sex scandal or a vice bust. This isn't something that you really work away from. As Yates knows, she will always be known as the woman who killed her children. But with William Lash III, we're supposed to look the other way and remember the 'good times'?

Andrea Yates is apparently mentally ill and had been prior to the murder. Chris Cuomo wants to tell us that "many" are offended that she's getting treatment (which she apparently needs) instead of prison and that the verdict leading to that is offensive to "many" -- that's offensive. A sick person didn't get the help she needed and the nation can respond in growls at her. A man who was teaching classes and a part of the administration not all that long ago (okay, maybe the latter proves insanity) doesn't strike us as being in the same boat as Andrea Yates by any means. But we're supposed to look the other way (not that that many are pointing to begin with)?

And on top of that, Susan Senator wants to rush in and grab the Lash incident to advance her own cause -- with no proof that autism had anything to do with the murder of a child. The article covering the memorials doesn't note a violent child, quite the contrary. Based on the reporting, a stronger conclusion might be that Lash and his wife's "altercation" alarmed him that he might lose contact with his son so, facing that, he decided to kill his son and himself. Parents Who Love Too Much doesn't fit in with Senator's advocacy so she ignores that.

What happened? No one knows at this point from the reporting. They know there was an altercation between Lash and his wife. They know the wife was locked out of the house and called the police for assistance. But Senator wants to tell you tales of an autistic child's violent episodes, she wants you to understand, really, really understand, how hard it is for parents.

Senator's on very dangerous ground as she uses her personal story to make a case that doesn't hold up in the press by correlating her own's son's violence with similar events that may have stressed out Lash. There's no foundation for that argument at present. So it's dangerous grounds journalistically.

Guess what? We don't give a damn about that. The dangerous grounds we worry about are the pleasing narrative. A father killed his son -- but don't be alarmed, it's stressful raising a special needs child. (It's stressful raising any child and if she disagrees with that she might want to ask the Menendez parents -- oh wait, she can't. They're dead.)

In our shock, some need a pleasing narrative to explain how such an awful crime could have taken place. The narrative, though false, then results in trend stories (that are never heavy on facts or reality) and lead to "solutions." With no evidence to back her up, Senator wants to present her own child's violent episodes as somehow the equivalent of the 'pressure' Lash must have been under (and tie in two other cases which may or may not be related to her central thesis -- we don't know those stories). She's spinning a trend in that one op-ed. In Lash's case, her "trend" is not supported. But that doesn't matter when the trend gathers traction.

And if this becomes a trend story and if the solution includes we need to (in order to be sympathetic to the parents -- and, of course, 'protect' the children) lock the autistic away (it was done before), she'll be the one responsible for setting that trend off. That's the dangerous ground that has us concerned. (We're guessing Susan Senator has no interest in setting off such a trend. Her intent doesn't matter if a trend gets rolling -- just like actual reporting on the case didn't matter to her column.)

In her own way, she's offering closure and justification the same way Cuomo is. In her case, she's dealing with an establishment figure (not a big one) who killed his son and so she's pulling defenses for his actions out of thin air. In Cuomo's case, he's dealing with a woman who was already disliked from the earlier coverage, who wasn't "establishment." He can (and does) go to town on her.

Lash was African-American and what role race does or does not play in the lack of the coverage is certainly an avenue to pursue. But the issue of a mother kills her children resulting in one standard for press coverage and a father kills his child and the press treats it another way is interesting. Given the opportunity to cover a parent-child murder, Primetime goes with Yates and, even with all the piles of coverage already on the subject, they blow it. Bet they don't get called on it. It's easy to get away with cutting corners when you're covering the reviled.

While Cuomo tries to calm those who don't believe that Yates is mentally ill (possibly they share some of the extreme beliefs she held and may still hold?) by assuring viewers in his final comments that Yates will be haunted with guilt for years and that, as she gets better, the guilt will only grow; the Lash brigade rushes in to argue not to let this define him and to have sympathy for him. In one instance, there's been massive coverage (from the start), in the other largely silence. It's interesting to note which story Primetime elected to cover.

[Added note: A friend working on Primetime Live during the Ortega interview wants it noted it was 16 years and five months ago. Like we -- Ava and C.I. -- said: about 17 years ago.]
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