The Pop of King

Graceless and Tasteless

Stephen King on Nancy Grace -- The Pop of King dissects the controversial news anchor

Stephen King on Nancy Grace

I'm sure Ron Williamson, of Ada, Okla., would have been Nancy Grace's dream case if she'd been on TV at the time of his arrest and subsequent trial for the murder of Debra Sue Carter; I mean, we're talking years of prime-time steak and chops, all culminating with Williamson being sentenced to death by lethal injection. The only problem is that Ron Williamson didn't do the crime. You can read all about it in John Grisham's extraordinary new nonfiction account of the case, The Innocent Man.

I've known John for 12 years, and beneath the kidding, ''I'm just a good ole boy'' exterior, there's a hardworking guy who believes in God, honesty, and the law. Maybe in that order, maybe not. And when I mentioned Nancy Grace in his presence, a look of discomfort, bordering on pain, came over his face. When I asked if he'd let me quote him for this piece, he said he can't stand to watch her.

Ron Williamson went through the horrors of the damned, and he's been much on my mind the last couple of weeks as I force-fed myself doses of Ms. Grace, the Darth Vader of CNN Headline News (which, like this magazine, is owned by Time Warner). And before you accuse me of writing about news in your favorite entertainment magazine, let me assure you that Nancy Grace is entertainment...if, that is, you're the sort who watches NASCAR for the crashes and Survivor hoping no one will. In the increasingly weird world of infotainment, she is the belle of the Freakers Ball.

Nancy Grace — puffy-cheeked, helmet-haired, heavy-lidded, strangely expressionless even during her frequent rages — conveys by body language alone the idea that we're all guilty of something...and she knows it. Her specialty is the sorts of tabloid crimes The National Enquirer used to cover in the bad old days, when car-crash photos and Mexican decapitations were staples. George Pelecanos, James Ellroy, and Michael Connelly are able to elevate such horrors to art; Nancy Grace degrades them so deeply into the fleapit of the imagination that a week of her makes Dick Cheney highlight reels look good. And like Puritan elders, Wild West hanging judges, or Madame Defarge knitting in the shadow of the guillotine, Nancy Grace gives the sense that somehow, someway, she just knows whodunit.

But not even veteran Grace watchers could have been prepared for this autumn's spectacular, when Ms. Grace kicked around the dead body of Melinda Duckett for either 30 or 60 minutes a night, depending on who else in this great land of ours was being stabbed, raped, or abducted.

Just in case you're one of the six who haven't heard: Trenton Duckett is or was (probably was) the 2-year-old son of Josh and Melinda Duckett, separated. Trenton was living with his mother in Leesburg, Fla. On Aug. 27, she called 911 at approximately 9 p.m. to report Trenton missing. When the police arrived, they found the screen of his bedroom window slashed. A search netted no result. The boy's father was questioned, then passed a polygraph (not that anyone really does; read The Innocent Man). And, inevitably, suspicion began to swing toward Mom.

Enter Nancy Grace. It's hard to tell if Melinda Duckett knew of Grace's penchant for ambush interviewing, or her seeming fantasy life as Perry Mason in a pink power suit; if she didn't, she found out. Grace repeatedly asked, while overriding Duckett's attempts to answer: ''Have you taken a polygraph?'' (Her lawyer told her not to.) ''Where were you?'' she later trumpeted, pounding on her desk. ''Why aren't you telling us where you were that day?'' The next day, Melinda Duckett crawled into her grandfather's closet and blew her head off with his shotgun. She had to be identified by an arm tattoo. Anyone with the smallest shred of decency would not have run that pre-suicide interview, but Nancy Grace isn't just anyone. She ran it — with a small graphic at the bottom of the screen saying Melinda Duckett's body had been found that afternoon.

If Trenton Duckett is dead, Nancy Grace is in the grotesque position of having to hope Mom did it. If not, the part Grace may have played in Duckett's death is almost beyond thinking about. If Duckett did kill Trenton (the police now call her the prime suspect), she's beyond the reach of the law and of no further help in finding the boy's body and easing the agony of his father or of his grieving relatives, and Ms. Grace almost certainly bears a responsibility for that, though she denies it.

Her network supported her decision to run the pre-suicide interview. The reason for that is in the numbers. Cable news is a Nielsen yard sale, but even so, sleaze sells. According to the AP, the death of Melinda Duckett (and the probable death of Trenton) has been good business for CNN Headline News and Nancy Grace. In recent months, Grace had been doing 534,000 viewers per night. In the days after Duckett's death, the show averaged 689,000.

One politics-and-business blog calls this ''the dead mother bounce.'' I call it ugly and shameful. As journalism it's immoral, and as entertainment, it's outright pimpery. Thirty-five years ago I wrote a novel called The Running Man, in which viewers watched fugitives run until they were executed on national television. I never expected to see anything remotely like it for real, but I never imagined Nancy Grace...and I've got a pretty nasty imagination.

No wonder John Grisham doesn't watch her.

Originally posted Sep 29, 2006 Published in issue #900 Oct 06, 2006 Order article reprints
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