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This column is not about Casey Anthony

BY ADAM B SULLIVAN | JULY 13, 2011 7:20 AM

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A presidential candidate visiting Iowa called for reducing federal support for low-income college students. A convicted killer here in Iowa City escaped and ran free for a few days. A young boy in eastern Iowa died in a four-wheeler accident.

All of that happened last week, and it all got some news coverage. However, all of those stories — and dozens more of local interest — were overshadowed by coverage of a trial 1,000 miles away.

That’s right — the Casey Anthony trial. The Des Moines Register, the state’s highest-circulation daily newspaper, ran the verdict recap on the front page. KCRG, the top station in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids-Waterloo market, talked about it for more than a minute in its nightly newscast. Even Daily Iowan TV, the nightly newscast I oversee, ran a short piece on it.

Yes, it’s horrible that a little girl died. Yes, there’s a chance her mother was responsible for her death (although there’s certainly reasonable doubt about that). But is life really so perfect here in Iowa that we need to look hundreds of miles away for things to worry about?

I mostly blame the news media for sensationalizing what’s really a routine murder case. Lots of people smarter than me have pondered why the Anthony trial caught fire while many similar cases don’t — maybe it’s because the mom is white and pretty, maybe it’s because reporters ran out of ways to cover deficit negotiations, or maybe the media machine fed itself just the right way, for no real reason at all.

And, really, the Anthony trial isn’t even a national story at all. It’s a local story for someone else. A national story is one that has to do with the nation — y’know, when the president or the Congress or the Supreme Court do something. The Anthony trial has to do with the state of Florida. That’s all.

But the national media scene is such a mess that it’s hardly worth critiquing, so I’m little concerned with why the behemoth news organizations decided to make the Anthony trial into a national story. What I’m more interested in is why Iowa-based operations followed along.

Local outlets frequently take cues from the major media players because they misunderstand their role. Local editors and producers suppose that if CNN is running away with the story, it must have a lot of interest. If it has a lot of interest, people here in Iowa likely care about it. If people here in Iowa care about it, one ought to give up prime page/newscast real estate to cover it.

That’s all wrong.

Except for those who don’t have a TV, radio, or Internet access — a small and shrinking population in the U.S. — everyone who wants information about the national media’s flavor of the day can get it from the national media. It’s not as though Register columnist Rekha Basu had to write a piece about the Anthony verdict or her readers wouldn’t have any other way of accessing the information therein. If her readers wanted to read about that, they’d go online and see what the color commentators at HLN and truTV had to say.

And no matter how much Iowans bitch and moan about how guilty Casey Anthony is and how they know the facts of the case better than the jurors, it won’t make a bit of difference. Guilty or not, the verdict won’t be undone, especially not by anyone here in the Midwest. What Iowans can change, though, is what goes on in their communities. But they need a little help from their community journalists.


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