The stars aligned for a spectacular convergence of freak-show fodder for the cable news networks in late March. Robert Blake set free! Terri Schiavo taken off a feeding tube! The pope put on a feeding tube! Michael Jackson under fire! But of all television’s talking heads, only one figure was capable of fully exploiting this tabloid bonanza, feeding on each story like tasty carrion.
That woman was Nancy Grace, Court TV host and Larry King sidekick, she of the notoriously flaring nostrils, who recently took over the nightly prime-time slot on CNN Headline News. Since February, when Grace joined Headline News, she has helped double the ratings of the reliable and monotonous channel I once left on in hotel rooms for a steady drip of ambient background noise. Grace pierces the bland surface of Headline News like a bloodcurdling scream as she delectates over the most salacious court cases of the day, grinding up all of these stories until they resemble so much greasy hamburger meat.
Very few female names surfaced in the media speculation about who would replace Dan Rather. It’s only in the cable news realms that women get their own shows, and even then, most of these anchors (think Paula Zahn) play it pleasant and demure, projecting the image of a perky, blonde working-mom-next-door. Grace may be blonde, but she is about as perky as a roach bomb, coating every story she reports—if reports is the right word for her prejudicial presentations—with bile and fury. Although she’s as belligerent and cocksure as Bill O’Reilly, Grace doesn’t seem driven by anything as clear or comfortable as ideology. Instead, she embraces the pose of a woman scorned, frequently making references to the murder of her fiancé 26 years ago, which inspired her to become a prosecutor for a Georgia D.A.’s office. Grace uses her show on CNN Headline News and her daily two-hour stretch on Court TV, Closing Arguments, to vicariously prosecute a series of high-profile court cases in ways that wouldn’t be allowed in a real court. (Back in her prosecuting days, though, Grace was apparently chastised once for inappropriate and possibly illegal conduct.) Her program often turns into a crusade as she flagellates a small list of demonized characters like Scott Peterson, Robert Blake, and Michael Jackson.
Nearly every night for the last few weeks she’s read aloud from salacious transcripts ascribing dirty deeds to Jackson. She takes special, almost obsessive glee in 1993 testimony from a boy who alleged nipple sucking and butt grabbing. “I told him I didn’t like that and Michael Jackson started to cry,” Grace quotes, then sneeringly rubs her eyes as if to wipe away crocodile tears. She abrasively cross-examines anyone who disagrees with her, whether it’s the defense attorneys she brings on to play whipping boys or the uncle of a boy who settled in an earlier case, whom she scolded, “I don’t like witnesses sitting back counting their muh-ney!” Her recent antagonistic encounter with Jesse Jackson set the blogosphere ablaze when the reverend tried to remind Grace of that fading American principle, due process. In response, Grace tossed saucy morsels into his lap (“Reverend Jesse Jackson, this suggestion that Michael Jackson is in bed with several little boys and their underwear is piled by the bed . . .”). Grace continues to ride Jackson’s “creep factor” on a daily basis. “I may get served for saying ‘creepy,’ ” she quipped on Closing Arguments last week. “It’s highly inflammatory.” Her lamentations for Terri Schiavo were equally inflammatory: One night she crowed about Terri’s doctors, “who are going home to a nice steak and lobster dinner tonight, a little surf and turf, maybe a little vino; they don’t think she should have a morphine drip while she’s starving to death?”
If Grace is unabashedly provocative, she’s also baldly ambitious; some media pundits are touting her as Larry King’s future replacement. Her Headline News series is billed as a legal-issues program, but Grace’s desire to play with the big kids means weighing in on other newsworthy subjects like, say, the pope’s impending demise. This led to some hilariously inappropriate babble. She grilled one Newsweek reporter as if there were some nefarious plot brewing at the Vatican: “First we heard the pope was dead. Then we heard, no, that’s incorrect. Now we are hearing back and forth, and back and forth. Why? . . . You say when the time is right, when the time is right. Why would they keep that from the public?”
Grace often snickers at Michael Jackson’s lack of awareness about his public image, but the criticism easily applies to her. For a media supernova, she has very little control over her facial expressions. Every time I freeze-frame her show, I catch Grace wrinkling her nose in blatant disgust or twisting her mouth in a contemptuous gesture. (She obviously doesn’t follow Tyra Banks’s advice on America’s Top Model to practice making pretty faces in the mirror.) She’s a Saturday Night Live sketch waiting to happen, a self-made cartoon character who turns world weekly news into a baroque passion play. It’s rare to see this kind of female rage vented on television, though it doesn’t amount to anything more revolutionary than the angry white-male pundits. But Grace has a growing viewership, and it’s not a question of them liking her despite her transparently wrathful facial expressions but because of them. She embodies a kind of unfocused anger that ignites around flashpoint cases, tapping into her viewers’ sense that things have gone wrong and ordinary people are getting a raw deal.
Watching Nancy Grace, I can feel two sides of myself in bitter conflict. There’s the irony-soaked Gen X’er in me who treats the show as a spectator sport, delighting in every sleazy line of inquiry. And then there’s the more earnest me who understands how many people watch Grace in utter seriousness—the me who agrees with Jon Stewart’s contention that this kind of blowhard demagoguery is “hurting America.” May the better half win.