Intimate details of sex lives, painful personal histories, greed, a severed penis and intrigue just off the ice. Last week’s headlines could have been written in tabloid heaven—which, in a manner of speaking, pretty well describes a slice of America in the 1990s. To be sure, other countries have their lurid scandals. But for sheer volume and variety, the American experience—amplified by a hype machine that marries the age-old fascination with sex and violence to the modem miracle of high-tech communications—is unrivalled. Where else would the case of Lorena Bobbitt—on trial last week for slicing off her husband’s sex organ—receive gavel-to-gavel coverage on a major U.S. network? And where else would the network cut to a live news conference in a snowstorm near Boston, where figure skater Nancy Kerrigan describes her Olympic hopes and her recovery from a vicious attack by someone who may have been linked to her chief on-ice rival, Tonya Harding.
From the talk shows to tabloid TV, from supermarket rags to the staid New York Times, the saturation last week was near-total; network television had already claimed two of the stories for TV movies, and deals on the others loomed as a possibility. But as trivialized and tacky as they may have seemed, the stories were rooted in serious, even tragic, events. Members of the Branch Davidian cult (who had their TV movie even before they had their day in court) went on trial for their involvement in the killings of four Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents in Waco, Tex., in February, 1993—an event that concluded with the fiery deaths of an estimated 72 people, including 17
sex. Afterward, she drove away from the couple’s apartment holding the severed organ in her hand. John Bobbitt denied ever assaulting his wife. “It’s no accident that this plays well on daytime television,” said Doman. “It’s just like a soap opera in many respects. Everything happens at a glacial pace. It trains intense scrutiny on minute details of the couple’s household life.”
However, the line that separates a forgettable story from the one that sets off media mania is often blurred. In Canada, there was comparatively light media attention to a 1992 trial in Brampton, in which a 48-yearold woman who had cut off her husband’s penis was acquitted on the grounds that she was a battered woman. In Canada, of course, laws about pretrial publicity are much stricter. And perhaps Lorena Bobbitt did her deed at a historical juncture when the American public—already primed by U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment hearings and by the Mike Tyson and William Kennedy Smith rape trials—was sure to be fascinated by an epic battle of the sexes.
As televised drama, the Bobbitts’ chief competitor last week was the emerging skating scandal. On Jan. 6, a man hit 24-year-old Kerrigan on the knee with a metal bar during the American figure skating championships in Detroit, knocking her out of competition. Harding, her 23-year-old rival, went on to win, although Kerrigan was awarded the second spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Initial reports suggested that the attacker was a crazed stalker. But late last week, police arrested three people: Harding’s hulking bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, 26, and two alleged co-conspirators. Eckardt’s lawyer—while entering a
children. A judge in Los Angeles declared a mistrial in the case of 23year-old Erik Menendez, one of two brothers accused in the brutal killings of their wealthy parents. Police arrested figure skater Harding’s bodyguard and two other men in the assault on Kerrigan. And Lorena Bobbitt, 24, testified that she had suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her estranged husband.
Sensational stories J tabloid-inspired me
Some observers argue that the media focus on such trials—including this very story—can have redeeming social value. “The Bobbitt case has sparked a great deal of discussion,” said Rita Smith, program co-ordinator for the Denver-based National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “It provides us an opportunity to do education—and education is the first step towards prevention.” But such lofty considerations may be lost on news outlets caught up in the increasingly competitive chase for stories that sell. “Five years ago,” said Brian Wells, a former executive editor of the National Enquirer, “the mainstream press and television would hardly have touched these stories. Now, there are all these tabloid TV shows reporting everything—and the mainstream press follows TV. By the time the tabs come out, the stories have been done to death.”
Take the Bobbitt case. Charged with malicious wounding, Lorena Bobbitt faces a 20-year prison sentence if convicted. Her 26-year-old husband was acquitted of marital rape two months ago. Chris Doman, associate professor of journalism and communications at Ottawa’s Carleton University, watched nearly eight hours a day of Bobbitt testimony live on CNN for three days last week. With cameras in a single location, Doman noted, it is an easy story for the network to cover. And it was enormously popular: when CNN switched to coverage of President Bill Clinton’s visit to Kiev, the anchorwoman apologized profusely but angry viewers still besieged network phone lines.
The testimony was rivetting. Lorena Bobbitt, an Ecuador-bom manicurist, said that she could not recall maiming her husband with a kitchen knife last June. But with sobs choking her words, she maintained that she had endured years of abuse, including beatings and forced anal sex. “I remember the first time he raped me,” she cried. “I remember every time he had the anal sex with me. He hurt me.” On the night of the incident, she testified, her husband forced her to have
preliminary not-guilty plea for his client—admitted that Eckardt was involved and felt remorse.
r America's i machine
Despite news reports that Harding’s ex-husband, 25-year-old Jeff Gillooly, was also under investigation, there were no more arrests by week’s end. Long an outsider in the elite world of figure skating, the tough working-class Harding had a rocky marriage and once traded punches with another female motorist. Asked before the attack for her thoughts on the Olympics, Harding replied: “What I am really thinking about are dollar signs.” Last week, one former Canadian skater who declined to be identified said: “The moment that I heard what happened to Nancy, I wondered if it had something to do with Tonya. She has a bad reputation, and it is not totally undeserved.”
Still, as a candidate for a TV movie, the story has its limitations, according to specialists in the field. Steve Levitan, president of Protocol Entertainment Inc., a Toronto production company, said that it would “start to get interesting” if Harding’s ex-husband were involved. And “there’s an American-style Hollywood payoff,” he added, “if Kerrigan goes to the Olympics and ends up winning the gold medal. But if Harding and Kerrigan come in eighth and ninth, it’s not a story at all.”
In general, Levitan said, a good TV drama must have extreme human emotion, as well as a protagonist and an antagonist. Even stories laden with sex and violence may fail without redeeming characters. Levitan said that he considered doing a movie on the trials of Paul Teale and Karla Homolka in the killings of two Ontario schoolgirls.
Searching for a hero, he talked to policemen involved in the case—but found the investigation was too complex, and included too many officers, to offer a single police protagonist. He dropped the project.
Once a real-life story is identified as good TV movie fodder, a whole industry swings into action. For The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom—a 1993 movie based on a jealous mother who plotted the murder of her daughter’s cheerleading rival—producer Jim Manos signed agreements with the mother’s ex-husband, daughter and son. “It was a zoo,” said Manos, who is coowner of a production company in Beverly Hills. “There were about 40 different producers and network executives trying to get the rights of the participants.”
Los Angeles producer Allan Marcil described a similar scene around Jessica McClure, the girl who fell into a well in 1987 in Texas, and was rescued 58 hours later. Securing those rights “should have been a scene in the movie,” said Marcil. “There were 20 producers hanging over a backyard fence waving contracts.” Marcil said that producers usually pay about $100,000 for a participant’s movie rights. People sometimes balk, but generally come around. “Showbiz has a magnetic appeal,” said Marcil. “When you tell them you want to dramatize their lives, they grow interested.”
Of the four sensational stories making headlines last week, two have been claimed so far. CBS is planning a movie about Erik and Lyle Menendez—who testified that they killed their parents after years of physical and sexual abuse. Meanwhile, NBC’s In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco, set a record for unseemly haste even by Hollywood standards. Eleven of the cultists who survived the siege of their compound, including Canadian Ruth Ellen Riddle, went on trial last week. But the movie about Waco aired last May. In fact, production was underway long before flames engulfed the compound last April 19, following a twomonth standoff. Although Toronto producer Levitan said that the movie was quickly and poorly executed, he concedes that “it’s a typical Hollywood story.” It had guns, a captivating religious fanatic and a finale that, though patently tragic, “is a terrific ending as a story.” But cult leader David Koresh, said Levitan, “wouldn’t have gotten the press as involved if there weren’t also stories about him having sex with girls under 15.”
Some industry observers say that, under increasing pressure from advocacy groups and advertisers to curb violence on television, networks may be less eager to transform some real-life stories into TV sagas. “We wouldn’t advertise on a film about the Bobbitts or the Menendezes,” said Paul Schulman, a Madison Avenue advertising buyer. “But I could see sponsors getting involved on the skaters story, if the allegations are correct.” One way or the other, the American machine seems destined to feed a seemingly insatiable public.
MARY NEMETH with WILLIAMLOWTHER in Manassas, Va.,
ANNE GREGOR in Los Angeles and JAMES DEACON in Edmonton
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