I write a lot.
I write for school, I write for my job, and I think my post-college plans will somehow involve newspaper journalism, a special form of writing through which one attempts to disseminate the truth. I’ve just got to stop my television set from ruining the profession for me.
My parents taped a special that aired Friday, Nov. 7 on NBC’s “Dateline,” an hour-long wankfest where mannequins posing as reporters obliterate journalistic integrity with sensationalist news segments and edgy, MTV-style cuts. The special, ridiculously titled “Sins of the Son,” involved the trial of David Attias.
Normally, I could care less what “Dateline” has to say about anything. However, in the spring of 2001 my then-editor Marisa Lagos and I covered the entire Attias trial. Every day, one or both of us sat in the Santa Barbara County Superior Courtroom and listened to hours of testimony about the tragedy on Feb. 23, 2001. We took notes and wrote news articles that conveyed the events accurately.
And then there’s what “Dateline” did.
Incredibly, reporter Josh Mankiewicz steamrolled the depth out of the entire incident, flattening it into as two-dimensional a tale of criminal justice as an episode of “Law & Order.” The hour-long special failed to introduce any news not previously reported. Furthermore, since Attias began his sentence at Patton State Mental Hospital in July 2002, he and those connected with his trial have not done anything newsworthy.
Nothing about Mankiewicz’s assembly of information showed any deep journalistic investigation. For example, he dismissed Isla Vista as “a free-spirited off-campus community” without detailing the role of I.V. in the incident or its emotional aftermath. Even the composition of camera shots was devoid of any reality: Mankiewicz in the empty courtroom; Mankiewicz walking down an unnaturally deserted section of Sabado Tarde Road; and shots of UCSB’s iconic Storke Tower that only further entrench the university’s association with this tragedy.
Only Jack Earley, half of Attias’ defense team, spoke to “Dateline.” Judge Thomas Adams, prosecutor Patrick McKinley, and Daniel and Diana Attias each appeared only as brief courtroom clips. Even Mankiewicz’s climactic interview with five of the Attias trial jurors – familiar people whose recollections I was eager to hear – yielded only one noteworthy revelation. One juror remarked that upon seeing Attias’ reaction to the verdict, he doubted his decision. “Is this theatre?” he said he asked himself.
Yes, it is. And so is all the “news” the TV spews into the American living room. Just like theatre, everything in the “Sins of the Son” special was contrived to produce an emotional reaction in its viewer. Traditional qualities of news, like information and timeliness, were ignored in favor of entertainment.
Connections to television and movies abounded throughout the trial. Many of the witnesses said the incident was unreal, like being in a movie. During the trial, McKinley compared testimony about Attias’ mental state to the content of TV talk shows. “You think you’re watching ‘Montel [Williams]’ or ‘Ricki Lake’ or something,” he said. And Daniel Attias produced “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice” – two shows that had been my only courtroom experience before his son’s own trial. Yet at the center was something real that Mankiewicz’s superficial schmaltz failed to capture.
Shows like “Dateline” defame all types of journalism. I’d wager they turn a lot of budding journalists off from the profession altogether. If I work as a journalist after I graduate from college, at least I know what not to do. I guess I should keep writing and hope that real journalists will keep trying to undo the damage the poseurs have done.
Drew Mackie is the Daily Nexus opinion editor.