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Why cable news pursues the JonBenet Ramsey case

While broadcast networks offer traditional journalistic fare, their cable rivals are now more like the Daily News than The New York Times.

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"SOLVED!'' read the Daily News headline. "BREAKING NEWS" flashed the MSNBC graphic: "JonBenet Ramsey Case Solved?"

Almost a decade after a flood of media speculation about the unsolved murder of the child beauty queen essentially convicted her parents in the court of public opinion, critics say they were at it again last week.

This time the new suspect was John Mark Karr, an Alabama man arrested in Thailand on child pornography charges, who had allegedly confessed to the 1996 killing.

But media critics note that within a day or so of the initial rush to judgment, a more skeptical tone took hold. News organizations that 24 hours before had only footnoted inconsistencies in Mr. Karr's account suddenly were scrutinizing them.

The trajectory of the JonBenet story highlights a new stratification of television news. The major broadcast networks that once set the nation's news agenda have settled into a less powerful evening niche offering more traditional journalistic fare while their cable rivals have matured into a kind of 24-hour tabloid broadcast, more like the Daily News than The New York Times. As such, they're more likely to focus on the sensational to keep their ratings up.

"The funny thing is that you can help your ratings and erode your reputation," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project on Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) in Washington. "The [broadcast] networks came to understand that, but the cable networks just can't seem to resist."

Tabloid sensationalism has been part of American media since the mid-1800s, and its formula hasn't changed: It involves a crime, the downfall of the innocent, and some kind of social deviance. But its dominance of the news agenda has come in waves. The "yellow journalism" of the 1880s cultivated by William Randolph Hearst's and Joseph Pulitzer's papers eventually died out, in part because the staid, uptown The New York Times proved to be a more lucrative economic model, says Mr. Rosenstiel.

The latest outbreak started during the O.J. Simpson case in 1994 and 1995 where the major media and the tabloids obsessed over the celebrity murder trial. In 1996, the Ramsey murder case marked the first time a local story that didn't involve a celebrity or a truly bizarre crime became a staple of the cable channels. While 9/11 "somewhat put an end to the OJ-ification of network news," Rosenstiel says, cable networks still thrive on local crimes like the Ramsey case, the Laci Peterson murder trial in 2004 and the Natalee Holloway disappearance last year.


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