MIAMI — Geraldo Rivera's television life has been full of strange moments, from on-the-air sex-change surgeries to fistfights with Nazis. But even Rivera was dumbstruck for a moment when, during man-on-the-street interviews about the Casey Anthony verdict, a woman excitedly chirped to his cameras: "This is better than 'Jersey Shore!'"
"How bizarre is that?" the Fox News correspondent exclaimed Wednesday. "Confusing reality with a reality show? But you can't make it into something cosmic. To inflate it to the decline and fall of the Roman empire, I don't buy that."
But the boundaries between illusion and reality, journalism and advocacy, fair trial and free press, all seemed elusive Wednesday as they were battered by conflicting waves of rage in the wake of Anthony's acquittal on the charge of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee.
As talk shows, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages erupted with rants against a verdict that many Americans considered shockingly wrong — Twitter comments denouncing the jury outnumbered those praising it by 64 to 1, according to the digital bean-counting company NM Incite — a countervailing wave of complaints that media coverage distorted the trial also took hold.
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Anthony is scheduled for sentencing Thursday on four misdemeanor convictions for lying to police, which likely will only feed the growing storm of media criticism.
It came most intensely, and least surprisingly, from Anthony's defense team.
"I hope this is a lesson to those of you having indulged in media assassination for three years," defense attorney J. Cheney Mason lectured reporters shortly after the verdict came in Tuesday. A few hours later, he put an exclamation point on his statement by lifting an upraised middle finger to reporters outside the restaurant where he was eating.
But Mason's critique was echoed, in only slightly less pungent terms, through the legal and journalistic communities. Many there complained that some television news shows built their ratings up by taking an openly prosecutorial stance against Anthony, leading to public expectations that a conviction was a slam-dunk certainty.
"The way TV has handled this is an embarrassment," said Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's media-criticism show "Reliable Sources." "The sheer volume of coverage for stories that are basically local tragedies is impossible to defend. Toss in a tone of sensationalism, legal pundits who want to be the next Judge Judy, and a rush to judgment that belies the inevitable nuances of a criminal case, and you have the Casey Anthony story. She was convicted on the air long before the courtroom jury took a vote."
The most pointed criticism was aimed at HLN's Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor whose nightly attacks on the woman she scornfully referred to as Tot Mom almost single-handedly inflated the Anthony case from a routine local murder into a national obsession. Grace made no attempt to hide her rage at Anthony's acquittal. "Tot Mom's lies seem to have worked," she exclaimed moments after the jury announced its verdict. "The devil is dancing tonight."
Grace's campaign against Anthony made her network (owned by CNN and formerly known as Headline News) the go-to spot for trial addicts.
Nearly 4.6 million viewers, the most in the network's three-decade history, turned tuned in to watch the verdict.
But it also erased any lines between journalism and advocacy, say her numerous critics.
"Nancy Grace should offend every journalist out there," said Howard Finkelstein, the Broward County, Fla., public defender whose televised commentaries during the O.J. Simpson case turned him into a local television star who 16 years later still has a gig on WSVN-TV.
The first lesson he learned during the Simpson trial, Finkelstein said, was that a lawyer analyzing a trial has to restrain the kneejerk impulse to act as an advocate. "I always tried to give both sides, the way a defense attorney sees it and the way a prosecutor sees it," he said. "These lawyers on TV during the Anthony trial only offered one side, everybody believed them, and now you've got a big chunk of the population that thinks the legal system let them down. Every time that happens, you lose part of the national community."
Lorna Owens, a Miami-Dade prosecutor turned criminal defense attorney who appeared several times on Grace's show to discuss the Anthony case, was so stricken by the number and the fury of complaints about the acquittal that she plans to change her own TV behavior.
"I think we have to be a little more respectful than we have been," Owens said. "If we don't stop this, we could have a riot, we could have somebody killed, because we have worked people up into a frenzy ... The whole Tot Mom story is not a good idea anymore."
Not everyone agrees.
"Twitter? Who cares?" scoffed CNN reporter Jeffrey Toobin, a former prosecutor who often joined the network's panel discussions of the Anthony case. "It's like people talking on street corners. The idea that because a few people are upset on Twitter that we as a society should do something differently, I think it's insane."
Toobin believes that television should cover trials more, not less, as a sort of running civics lesson. So does lead CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin, a New York defense attorney who has also worked as a federal prosecutor. She believes the anger over the Anthony verdict resulted not because TV hosts misinformed viewers but because they got to see the evidence for themselves.
"There were cameras in the courtroom, and they showed a very competent prosecution team, a very competent defense team, and a very competent judge," she said argued. "You can say people were fooled, but I give them more credit than that. I think people watched — we know they watched, because of the ratings — and they made their own decisions."
In any event, cautioned former Miami federal prosecutor Kendall Coffey, it's nothing new for Americans to treat murder trials as entertainment.
"We've had many 'trials of the century' throughout history, and they started long before cable news or reality TV or TV, period," said Coffey, whose 2010 book, "Spinning The Law: Trying Cases In The Court of Public Opinion," traced the history of high-profile court cases. "There was no more media-obsessed trial in American history than the one for the Lindbergh baby's kidnapper in the 1930s. And later (in the 1950s) you had the murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard in Ohio, which attracted so much publicity that the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the conviction. This is not some kind of modern phenomenon."