Cable's Cameras Out Of Focus

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Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.



I have never met Daniel Horowitz but I have heard that he is a nice man and a very good attorney. I feel terribly for him today, as he mourns the premature loss of his wife, Pamela Vitale, who was brutally murdered last Saturday.

But because he often serves as a cable legal analyst, and thus presumably understands a bit about how the media game is played, I hope he will forgive me for what I am about to say.

Thursday's cable coverage of two legal stories — the news of an arrest in the Vitale slaying and news that Congress passed sweeping gun legislation — demonstrates with digital clarity much of what is wrong with the business of disseminating legal news to consumers.

With all due respect to Horowitz, the arrest of a suspect in his wife's murder was nowhere near worthy of all the breathless coverage it received. Concomitantly, coverage of the "Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act" was pathetically inadequate given its landmark status and political and practical ramifications.

Unfortunately, innocent victims such as Vitale get murdered every day in this country, all over this country, and in all sorts of horrible ways. And all over the country suspects are arrested for those murders thanks to good police work, blind luck or a combination of both. Sometimes these crimes reveal genuinely important legal issues and causes, and generate important societal debates about crime and punishment.

Often they do not. Often, they simply are what they are; unnecessary and inexplicable tragedies that befall a family and affect a community.

The vast majority of these cases never make it to your eyes and ears because they never make it to national status as legal stories. And those that do reach that status do so these days mostly because of collaboration — you can even use the word "conspiracy" if you'd like — between the victim's family, local media and national television celebrities who have a stake in creating and then covering the next "Laci" or "Chandra" case.

The industry has a factory, if you will, for taking otherwise mundane true crime stories and ginning them up into ersatz epics.

The Vitale murder made it to that status for two reasons, one legitimate and the other not. The legitimate news hook on the story was that for a while it appeared that Horowitz's wife had been murdered as part of some payback for his work as a criminal defense attorney in a pending murder trial.

Indeed, the news of her murder prompted the judge in that case to declare a mistrial — a scenario that, thankfully, doesn't happen much and thus warranted the coverage it received.

The other reason for the elevation of the Vitale murder to "Laci" status is not legitimate. The story got tremendous play mostly because Horowitz is part of the clique of legal analysts and television hosts largely, but not entirely, based in California, who all know each other, appear on each other's shows and otherwise keep the above-described factory running.

I say this with no intended disrespect to Horowitz or any other part-time legal analyst who pushes to get in front of camera. It is a good career move for a practicing attorney to appear on television as a legal analyst. For the record, I am not a practicing attorney and have not been one since 1998.

Horowitz's television friends rallied around him after he discovered his wife's body on Saturday evening and I applaud them for that. However, they took this personal, private support onto the airwaves and thus turned their friend and colleague's private grief into a public angle to the story.

  • Robb Todd

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