The Karla-versus-the-media show

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The question I really love is: Is she manipulating the media? Why should she actually bother trying to manipulate the media, considering the media's sadomasochistic wish to be manipulated?

There are times when I'm not all that proud to be a journalist — times when the grand old profession, throwing its last shreds of dignity out the window, embarrasses me.

This happens at the sight of a gaggle of television cameras and microphones in hot pursuit of some combination of sex, notoriety, money, or anything else that will titillate in a grand display of abandoned journalistic judgment in which an already intellectually obese public is invited to chow down on even more nutrient-poor trivia.

Of course, whenever it happens, I hate to mention it because it's like scratching a rash — talking about it just spreads it around more. But in the Karla Homolka case, the itch is pretty well hopelessly spread since the big media can't keep themselves from obsessing, from hauling out every shrink, criminologist, lawyer and whatnot to answer the big questions: Is she sincere? Is she still playing games? Is she sorry? What does she long for? What about Karla and French/English Canada? (Karla and the Constitution! — It's coming. Wait for it.)

But the question I really love is: Is she manipulating the media?

It reminds me of a comment made by a British wit a century or so ago, in response to a scandal in which some journalists were accused of taking bribes: “Why bribe the British journalist, considering what the fellow will do unbribed?”

In the same way, why should Homolka actually bother trying to manipulate the media, considering the media's sadomasochistic wish to be manipulated? To consummate her “manipulation” entirely, all she has to do now is set up a series of interviews with the too-willing media, all in her excellent Quebec colloquial French, while demurely protesting her shyness and desire for privacy, in which she wears a skimpier and skimpier outfit every time.

Journalistic antique that I am, I keep looking for the “issue” in all this. Is it, in some legal sense, her reduced 12-year sentence obtained by testifying against her husband and co-murderer Paul Bernardo? (But that was amply chewed over 12 years ago.) Is it the question of restrictions on her release? (But that's only an issue because the media are following her everywhere.) Is it the feelings of the bereaved families? Yes, for sure. But aren't there victims with feelings every time a brutal character is released — and why not the same media circus?

Homolka, of course, has real notoriety, and there are reasons for the media and the public to be interested. It's the relentless pursuit of “news porn,” in which tabloid scandal-sheet practices make it into the mainstream, that goes beyond reason.

In the U.S., where this stuff originated, pioneered primarily by CNN, a columnist in the New York Times was complaining recently that as war and peace, the environment, world trade and other momentous matters were at issue in the Congress, CNN, which bills itself as America's and the world's prime source of news, had gone straight from saturation coverage of hearings into steroids in baseball to the Michael Jackson trial to the Terry Schiavo affair for weeks on end.

Meanwhile, far less noticed is a New York Times reporter who went to jail last week for refusing to divulge her source for information related to the false intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq. Getting the serious stuff out is getting harder and harder, while the masses are amused with sensation.

TV reporters and news anchors, often obviously uncomfortable at the triviality of their task, find themselves having to announce stuff like “Michael Jackson has left the mansion; he's on his way,” in the same sonorous tones as if covering affairs of state.

The episode that juiced up cheap-thrills news was the O.J. Simpson trial of six years ago. It was billed — and apparently believed by large segments of the public, including the Canadian public — that this murder trial of a pathetic, washed-up sports star was the “trial of the century.” Since then, CNN has never looked back. Other TV networks have followed.

And it spread to the newspapers, under pressure to match the trend. The Globe and Mail, as agitated as anybody by Karla, has been into front-page coverage of basically Ontario sensations for some time.

This newspaper [Nova Scotia's Chronicle-Herald] has been one of the most restrained on that score. It's also pretty well the last daily in the country to be still family-owned. The others are run by conglomerates. That might have something to do with it.

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