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When the Circus Came to Town

The commute from Salem to Cambridge takes about an hour, but -- for a month or so at least -- it transported anybody bothering to make the trip a million miles from the placid Massachusetts autumn, to the far-away land of Insane Media Circuses. H.P. Lovecraft got the thousand-eyed monsters lurking in the quiet, cold countryside right, but he didn't mention that they'd be made up of news crews.

News crews and news crews and news crews. A block from my office, satellite dishes sprang up from the street like metal mushrooms, and news teams encased the Cambridge courthouse in a solid, sticky layer of investigative journalism.

And all of them there to give hard-hitting coverage of Louise Woodward's murder trial. Or, "The English Nanny Trial" or "The British Au Pair Search for Justice," for those of you who don't recognize events unless they've got snappy titles to go along with them.

(A small note for the lexically-challenged: "Au pair" is French for "young girl likely to be seduced by a Kennedy.")

The case, really, was straightforward: The nanny had been charged with severely shaking an infant boy in her care, resulting in injuries that caused his death a few days later. The defense claimed that the boy's death was brought about by pre-existing injuries. Simple, right?

Snort, snort, guffaw.

Judging by the number of news crews at the courthouse, there must have some serious adjudicating goin' down -- deeply complex issues about the meaning of justice in the modern world, and it's place in our society. There must have been intricacies galore, nuances beyond mortal comprehension, details upon details upon details. Right? All those people couldn't possibly be covering the exact same trial the exact same way, could they?

Do I even have to give a punch line?

Of course they were, you mook. You got the exact same stern tones and preachy melodrama no matter what channel your clicker vomited up on the TV. The film clips, interviews, transcripts were all tautologous, with only different pretty faces and swooshing graphics separating one from another.

Even the news crews themselves seemed identical to each other. Slob camera operators, shaggy sound techs, and glorious, royal reporters. While you could find the grunt workers munching on a plate of eggs and home fries as you walked into your corner deli, the on-camera talent preferred to stay under cover, hidden in their cars, perfecting their makeup. They ventured outside with trepidation, only to make their report, then scurried back inside to protect themselves from harmful exposure to real people.

Over time, I adjusted to my new neighbors. I would chuckle as I walked by, overhearing each reporter I passed earnestly recounting the exact same story as every other newsdrone around them. I even began to look forward to strolling past the cameras on my way to the train station, wondering on how many different newscasts I could see myself when I got back home: "There's Brokaw, now they cut to Cambridge... Yep, there's my backpack."

And then one day, as quickly as they had come, my little newsbuddies scrambled away. A verdict was announced, sentencing was handed down and subsequently altered, and after a couple of days legal parking spots began magically re-materializing.

The latest Trial of the CenturyTM was over and done with, and the most popular British nanny since Mary Poppins had been -- in the words of Boston's trashy wanna-be newspaper) -- "saved by Zobel."

Say it out loud a few times until you catch the pun.

Leaving work the day of the verdict, I sauntered by the county courthouse and got to watch the glorious process of normalcy slowly returning. Up and down the street, men and women were packing away cables, aluminum supports and video equipment. Load upon load of gear was secured in trucks and driven away. All this stirring and running about, simply because the adjacent courthouse was now sheltering one less young Englishwoman.

As the trucks moved on and cleared up parking space for us normal schlubs, my elation slowly turned to concern. I realized that the TV news commune that had sprouted up for Woodwardstock (with headlining act Barry Scheck and the Reasonable Doubts) would now be destroyed. Mass congregations of TV media like this being a rare and treasurable source of professional pride for these bozos, I assume.

I found myself wistfully wondering, "Oh, dear, the poor news people. What, oh what, will they have to occupy themselves with now?"

Baby, let me tell you, they found something without even looking very hard. They undid their belts, shoved the cameras down their pants and give viewers television news coverage on television news coverage of the aftermath of the trial.

I switched on the TV one morning to get a quick weather update -- the inside of my refrigerator was warmer than the outside air -- and I saw a news nugget that had me laughing like a CEO at a downsizing. Channel 5's) news cameras were filming other news cameras, and a reporter reported on reporters hoping to report a Louise Woodward "sighting." Woo hoo! Boston finally has its own cult celebrity to stalk! Eat your heart out, L.A.!

The most striking -- even brilliant -- aspect of the segment was television's ability to fill the airwaves with content about television itself. Such meta-programming seems like the most cost-effective way for a station to operate. Imagine a TV station that airs nothing but programs about TV -- a 24-hour celebration of the magical box that always lets you know what's happening to your favorite trial defendants and soap opera actresses.

"Our top story: Why can't Susan Lucci win that Daytime Emmy that we all pray for her to take home? Our crack reporters have uncovered Susan's dirty little secret: she's been banned for life from winning the statue for betting on Emmy results while she herself was nominated for an Emmy!" Ooooo.

Television news has been a freakshow for years now, and at least my way it doesn't pretend to be anything but. Anybody who's ever been to the zoo knows there's nothing more entertaining that watching the monkeys sling shit at each other for a change.


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