Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Melinda Duckett vs. All of Us

In yesterday's SF Chronicle, columnist Jon Carroll pleads with liberals and progressives and decent people everywhere to conserve our outrage and not waste it on the likes of Nancy Grace.

"In these troubled times, outrage is a limited commodity," Carroll writes. "There are only so many hours in the day... So we need triage. We need risk assessment. We need to remember that just because the herd is running some place doesn't mean that we have to run that way too."

But Jon, I think I can spare a moment of spittle-spewing indignation in memory of Melinda Duckett, who was suspected of murdering her 2-year-old Trenton and foolishly agreed to go on national TV to talk about it. Duckett killed herself the day her interview with rabid talk-show host Nancy Grace aired on CNN, which ran an announcement of the suicide at the bottom of the screen. Classy. I've read the transcript and it's pretty clear that Grace grilled Duckett into incoherence, intent on solving the case right then and there in front of the whole audience.

Here's the context: Duckett had been laid off from her job and was going through a divorce with Trenton's father, who'd been hit with a temporary restraining order. Parents, try to walk a mile in her shoes and imagine the stress of a situation like that. Here's a 21-year-old woman, barely an adult, who was probably living every moment of every day with fear and anxiety. She's isolated and taking care of a toddler. She probably doesn't have much help or support. The money was running out. There's evidence that the dad was abusive, though I'm not going to say if he was or wasn't because I wasn't there.

Being a parent provokes a curiously bipolar response to a case like this. On one hand, it seems impossibly monstrous that any parent could commit an act of violence against a helpless baby; some of us want vengeance on behalf of our own children. On the other, I think that if we are willing to dig deep, most parents will find moments when we've all been pushed right to the edge of violence. (Think four in the morning and the baby's been crying for an hour and you've got a big meeting at work in five hours and your spouse is irritable and not much help and your arms are getting tired from carrying the baby and if you have to shush one more time you're going to scream...)

I've had sleep-deprived, stressed out moms tell me that they feel like they are going to die; one said that she didn't feel like she could control any aspect of her life and that she was angry at everything, including her little boy. I've read that moms who kill their kids often convince themselves that their children are better off dead, given the reality the family is facing. Certainly, there's no shortage of parents, moms and dads, who beat their kids to within an inch of their lives. This isn't to excuse the parents - they should be tried in court and either treated or punished, as the case warrants - but if we can try to understand the conditions that would drive a woman (or man) to that extremity, we might be able to help prevent a disaster or heal a family that's been through one.

That said, I don't know if Duckett was innocent or guilty. I have no idea if Nancy Grace drove Duckett to suicide. Neither do you. I'm less concerned about the facts of the case than about what the Nancy Grace interview reveals about our culture and parenting. In the transcript, Grace is conducting multiple interviews simultaneously, including with Melinda Duckett, her estranged husband Josh, and a circus tent of guests who critique Duckett's "performance" as the interview proceeds.

At one point, Duckett, who was probably exhausted and is visibly confused, says she doesn't want to answer a question "because I'm not dealing with media very well." (Turned out later her divorce lawyer had advised her not to answer certain questions.) Grace turns to Marc Klaas, president of an organization called Beyondmissing and crusading celebrity father of the murdered Polly, for an opinion. "Nancy, in these kinds of cases the media is never the problem," says Klaas, whose job is to appear in the media. "The media is always a friend, it's about sharing information. It's about transparency, it's about working with the authorities. It's about working with the media and it's about getting over that hump that people are looking at you. And quite frankly, Melinda is not doing that very well at all."

"The media is always a friend"? "Melinda is not doing that very well at all"? Who the hell is this guy? He acts like the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" for parents of missing children. Perhaps he should have coached Melinda beforehand, maybe gone through her wardrobe and shared his favorite hair gel, developed some talking points and blocked some tragic poses. Then perhaps Duckett might have performed to his satisfaction for our friend, the media. Even assuming that Klaas sincerely wants to help parents find abducted kids, I'd respectfully suggest that his appearance on Nancy Grace's show didn't help anyone except Marc Klaas. It's fun to be on TV, isn't it, Marc? Remember back when it was just a means to an end? How naive you were, back then. How much more sophisticated you are now.

And how sophisticated we all pretend to be. I scanned editorials, blogs like the one you're reading, and talk-show discussions. Newspapers and many blogs dutifully roasted Grace for being crass, but a substantial number of TV talking heads fell over themselves with support for Grace and her tactics. Duckett was an adult, say the talking heads. She should have known the score, and if she didn't, it's her fault. She should have watched more CNN and maybe taken some notes, for future reference, back when she had the chance, presumably. She didn't even have the common decency to have attended j-school.

Melinda Duckett may or may not have committed a crime. That hasn't been proved one way or the other. But in my eyes, and of course in the eyes of lots of people, CNN and Nancy Grace stand convicted of turning a family tragedy into entertainment. Grace and homelander celebrities like her say they're trying to "reunite families" (direct quote from a press release!), but they do nothing of the kind. Instead they directly hurt the families who stumble, blinking and nervous, in front of cameras hoping for help or vindication or sometimes fifteen minutes of fame.

That alone is wrong, but it's much bigger than the families who land in the spotlight. In a mindless drive for eyeballs and profits, mainstream media cheapen the culture that's supposed to bind us together and they drag their audiences into moral and political fantasylands. Many editorials I read faulted Grace for her journalistic ethics and technique, but to me the media's systemwide failure is moral (in failing to distinguish right and wrong) and political (in abandoning their historic mandate to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted - today in the media and in every major institution, it is the comfortable who have their backsides kissed and the afflicted who gets their asses kicked).

When we can't find justice in the real world, we look for it on TV. We seek the appearance of justice and indulge ourselves in fantasies of moral rectification. Maybe that's necessary in fictions like 24 or Over There, but it's terrible and destructive when enacted as ritual slaughter on TV that purports to be reality, starring real people who don't have the benefits of a script, teleprompter, or competent legal representation.

Sometimes when I look out at the world I've helped to make - through inaction or self-indulgence - for Liko, I want to cry. We can do better than this.


At 9:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 10:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 9:54 AM, Blogger Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Hi Anonymous. Sorry for the delayed response. You can reach me at best, J

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