Ed Quillen: Molehills and mountains

Ed Quillen
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

What with all the other stuff going on – the search for a sane Republican candidate, the debt-ceiling negotiations, an anti-trust investigation of Google, etc. – it should have been simple to avoid the Casey Anthony trial.

But it wasn’t. The case popped up on TV more often than those “ask your doctor about …” ads. No matter how respectable the publication or website, it still provided coverage and analysis. Eventually, I gave up and watched a two-hour special just so I could make some sense of it.

What was hard to understand, though, is why this case attracted so much attention, since small children die every day in suspicious circumstances without wall-to-wall national coverage.

Some have attributed the case’s prominence to Nancy Grace, who presents court coverage and commentary on cable. There might be something to that. Years ago I learned that with trials, converge begets coverage, even in the most non-sensational proceedings.

As managing editor of the small local daily in 1978, I had a reporter just out of college. She had never covered a trial, and on little papers like ours, everybody ended up doing a little bit of everything.

Trials generally aren’t difficult if you can manage sitting for long periods in an uncomfortable courtroom. Just about everything presented is aimed at the jury – that is, a dozen people who presumably know nothing about the case. Everything has to be presented and explained clearly if it’s going to affect the verdict.

Nonetheless, Susan didn’t want to have to jump in unprepared if it became necessary for her to cover a big trial. So I perused the court docket to find a little trial.

I don’t recall all the particulars, except it involved a traffic accident on Trout Creek Pass, and one driver was contesting the charges. I called the judge and both attorneys and explained that I had a rookie reporter. If she were to attend this one, would they answer her questions during breaks – or, if replies were inappropriate, explain why.

They were all agreeable, and the trial was scheduled for a slow time when we could spare Susan from her regular work. Before the trial started, she read the filings and wrote an advance story.

In an ideal world, perhaps, her trial coverage would have been an academic exercise. But at our small paper, we needed all the local news we could get our hands on. So I ran the advance story.

Each trial day thereafter, I went over Susan’s story carefully. She was doing just fine, and so we published daily trial stories.

Remember, this trial was picked not because the sagacious managing editor thought it was a significant event worthy of extended public attention, but for the opposite reason. It was rather routine litigation that suited our educational purposes.

But by the second day, the local radio station had a reporter in the courtroom. The reporter for the weekly paper in Buena Vista began attending. The Pueblo Chieftain’s local correspondent started filing daily accounts, which The Associated Press then picked up.

It made me wonder: Why don’t editors trust their own news judgments instead of covering something just because we did? It also showed me how easy it is to turn a relatively minor case into a journalistic sensation, even if that was never your intention.

And think how much more sensational it can get if you’re Nancy Grace and it is your intention.