Stories lose us in their allure

Public opinion is a fickle, fickle thing.

Americans love a bad guy turned golden or a good guy turned bad. The poles of the human psyche are intriguing, and nothing makes a better story than someone confronting her dark side.

And the media picks up on this. Journalism is the only profession mentioned specifically in the Constitution, charged with the role of watchdog and guardian of democracy. But hell, when a good juicy story comes along, who cares about democracy?

Of course I am being facetious, but I cannot speak for everyone in journalism. No one, even in the media, can deny that certain stories have that something that captivates both the writers and the readers. Something past the facts and the big-picture reality of a story.

People want something larger than life, otherwise soap operas wouldn't be so popular. If we were satisfied with our own lives we wouldn't look for outside mindless entertainment.

That is what the public is looking for when it fixates on stories like the O.J. Simpson trial, or Susan Smith, the woman accused of rolling her car into a lake with her two small boys trapped inside.

Both stories have the essential elements: sex, violence, love-turned-sour and death. Both are holding a nation's attention, for a remarkably long time on the public attention scale. Simpson's murder charge has been "news" since June when he was charged with killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and Smith has been in the public eye since October.

This longevity is remarkable, considering that Ollie North received his state's Republican nomination for U.S. Senate despite his shady Iran-Contra past.

This is not to dismiss the victims' misfortune. They are the true victims in these instances, but that seems to have been forgotten in the allure of a sexy story.

Simpson's trial is supposed to begin this week, but instead of the nation's attention focusing on evidence and the justice system, the public eye is trained on his defense team's infighting. Never mind that the trial is supposed to be about convicting a person for the murder of two people, we want the juicy stuff. We want the name-calling, the backbiting and the gossip.

The magic of this case, and the Smith case, is the total turnaround in the public's perception of a person. Simpson is the fallen sports hero, with a not-so-picture-perfect private life being painted by the prosecution and the media. The smiling man from the television commercials and football games has been transformed into a villain, and as disturbing as that is, America loves it. Just as Simpson was the celebrity Everyman of sorts, he represents the public's cynicism as well, with the collective thought "He always seemed too good to be true."

I obviously do not know if Simpson is innocent or guilty of the murders. In a way, that doesn't matter anymore. If he is acquitted, the saga will get even better, positioning Simpson in the "innocent man wronged by the system" role. Unfortunately, that happens more than we'd like to think just not to people an entire nation knows about.

The Susan Smith case is intriguing because there is the added element of maternity. Simpson's case is considered news because he is so famous, and Smith made her case public by making a plea for help, and then allegedly confessing to the crime.

The public felt betrayed by Smith, and even more outraged that a mother would murder her own sons. The ensuing turmoil left communities wondering how to explain death of little babies to their children, left them feeling duped by a lying mother, and left them trying to reconcile the realities of life and death, both at the hand of one person.

The public outcry was so loud that the prosecutor in the Smith case has said he will pursue the death penalty if Smith is convicted. His reasoning is that he does not think the public will settle for anything less than revenge for her children.

Yet while these stories captivate a national audience, they are not abnormal. Everyday people are charged with murder, and tales of parental abuse and even murder are sadly not extraordinary. Yet something about these particular stories are compelling, but still gloss over the real story.

The real story is not Simpson's defense team rift, or Smith's tears of remorse for her alleged crime. The media, and the public, need to realize that people want something more than sensationalized "best-friend tells all" stories. And people need to demand it.

We are not force-fed media, we can choose it.

Sarah Garrecht is Wildcat editor in chief and a journalism senior.

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