by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Afew weeks ago, I wrote a column extolling the virtue of newspapers. I left out the most important thing.

With a newspaper, you can skip over the stories you don’t want to know about.

No such luck in television, where you watch the news as it’s presented, in order of importance — determined by what will get the greatest ratings.

Which brings us to the frenzy over Robert Blake and his murdered wife.

Let me sum up the case:

Robert Blake’s wife was murdered.

Oh, sure, there were some weird elements. She had a checkered past. She seduced famous people. He said he left a gun in a restaurant. He said when he went back to get it, his wife was shot in their car.

But you know what? Most murder cases have those elements. Alibis. Strange coincidences. Guns. Checkered pasts. So what?

Here’s what. Blake is a celebrity. Never mind that his last part anyone remembers was a 1970s TV show — about a cop — called “Baretta.”

Never mind. Once in Hollywood, always in Hollywood. So the other day, I flipped on an all-news cable channel. Nearly 15 minutes were spent on the Blake story, even though nothing new had happened. A “special investigation” was touted for that evening. Lawyers were interviewed.

So was the victim’s sister, who said she and the bereaved family believed her sister’s killer “was her husband.”

You could almost hear the media’s hallelujah chorus.

Thank you, Lord — another O.J.!

Vitello’s vs. Mezzaluna

Already the similarities are being yanked together like a shotgun wedding. Blake, like O.J., is immediately a suspect, without being declared a suspect. Blake’s wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, is accused of having a wild side, as was Nicole Brown Simpson.

A Hollywood restaurant, Vitello’s, was involved in the Blake story, as was Mezzaluna in the O.J. story.

The victim’s relatives suspect the husband, as Nicole Brown Simpson’s family suspected O.J.

The husband’s family — Blake’s son, Noah, who went on “Larry King Live” and professed his father’s innocence — is rallying around him.

There are taped conversations of the murdered wife. Blake has hired lawyers. Lie detectors are debated.

And, of course, the media are camping out. The frenzy is already so great that the funeral director was unable to deliver Bakley’s body to the funeral home because of the throng of reporters and photographers.

You can smell this thing coming like bread in an oven. And if Blake is accused of the crime? Good night. There will be a trial, hourly updates, Geraldo, Gerry Spence, the LAPD, maybe Lance Ito as judge …

The question is why?

Newspapers vs. television

Didn’t we go through this once? Didn’t we all feel sick afterward? Weren’t we more than a bit ashamed for following something that became so lurid, so invasive and so overblown, that people actually admitted addictions to the coverage? Why on earth would we do it again?

I’ll tell you why. Ratings. That’s it. Ratings. Money. Advertising dollars. In the glare of those things, everything else — common sense, decency, balance
— is tossed into shadow.

News networks — particularly cable outlets — radio shows, even the book business, never had it so good as when O.J. was all over the place. And even though we all claim it was disgusting, like a seductive dessert, when it gets put in front of us, we say, “Oh, just a little piece . . .”

Make no mistake: We are on that road again.

Now, it’s not like newspapers won’t have a field day with this. They will run just as many loopy stories, just as many lurid details. The difference is, those stories will not take up a third of the newspaper, the way they will take up a third of a half-hour news block. And you can skip it altogether and read about something important, such as your children’s education, the gas crisis or wars around the world.

As for the electronic media? Perhaps the best lesson came when O.J. Simpson himself was interviewed about what he’d suggest to Blake.

“Don’t watch TV, Robert,” he said.

Imagine that. O.J, smarter than all of us.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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