There are some subjects that most newspapers are reluctant to dig into, and at the top of the list are newspapers themselves. It’s not that they have a whole lot to hide (the Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times aside). It’s just that newspeople generally loathe becoming part of the stories they’re covering. Even though they often are.
That’s why no one has been covering the other Michael Peterson trial, the one that’s been taking place in the newspapers and on TV. Much of what’s been read and seen over the past 17 months has been the result of the media strategies devised by defense attorney David Rudolf and Durham DA Jim Hardin Jr. Think about it: Right now, before the first piece of testimony has been heard, do you think Michael Peterson is a dedicated father? Do you wonder about the Durham Police Department’s investigative procedures? Are you suspicious of how Peterson’s good friend happened to die the same way as his wife? How would you know about any of that were it not for pre-trial coverage?
As Jennifer Strom points out this week, there’s an important story there. The defense and the prosecution are trying to influence as much of what you read and see about the case as they can. Rudolf has proven himself to be a master at the game, setting up interviews with family members, tipping reporters off when motions are about to be filed, always being available when a comment is needed. Strom reveals that on the Friday before jury selection was scheduled to start, Rudolf was in the N&O offices warning of a possible libel suit before a big Sunday story looking at questions about the way Peterson handled himself in battle in Vietnam. The story ran anyway.
Hardin is much more limited in the kinds of information he can reveal. But the DA did his best to work the media, waiting until just before the trial to have the body of Elizabeth Ratliff exhumed in Texas to see if her death 18 years before was a homicide. TV and newspapers were filled with the story the next day, and Strom points out that the police even tried to keep the story alive by tipping reporters to when the coffin would be arriving in Durham.
And at the center of it all is Peterson–novelist, father, widower, gadfly, socialite, columnist, mayoral candidate and now, murder defendant. If you want to know the real reason for all the media coverage, that’s it. There are lots of murders in the Triangle every year, but none with all those elements. The lawyers may have been trying to sway reporters, but they wouldn’t have had nearly as receptive an audience if there weren’t so many willing readers and viewers. When you start to ask yourself why there’s all that TV and newspaper coverage and Court TV and streaming video, don’t look too far. Just wonder why you’re getting one story and not another.