Jodi Arias case bumps a bigger story

Editor’s Note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

Story highlights

Howard Kurtz: Story of kidnapped women in Cleveland is a riveting one

He says news outlets switched attention to Jodi Arias verdict Wednesday afternoon

Kurtz says murder cases are sadly common; Cleveland case of a different magnitude

Kurtz: Story "commands our attention as a matter of human compassion"

CNN  — 

The Cleveland kidnapping drama was unfolding on the airwaves, hour after hour, a riveting spectacle that was overshadowing every other conceivable story.

Nothing could possibly bump it from the nation’s television screens – or so I thought.

When word came Wednesday afternoon that a verdict had been reached in the Jodi Arias murder trial, the focus of the cable news universe immediately shifted from Ohio to Arizona, where the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder.

It was a day of anguish and emotion – and a revealing Rorschach test of media values.

Howard Kurtz

In an age of school shootings and marathon bombings, hard-bitten journalists have grown accustomed to reporting on human depravity. But there is something about what happened in Cleveland that tears at the heart.

Yes, the story went wall to wall, overshadowing virtually everything else, except for the Fox News coverage of the congressional hearing on the attack in Benghazi. But the crimes in Cleveland deserve to be big news precisely because they border on the unimaginable.

Three teenage girls vanish in separate incidents, only to be freed nearly a decade later from some modern-day house of horrors? Ropes and chains, according to city officials, are found in the home? Amanda Berry, who made that anguished 911 call, has a baby ?

If you don’t think that’s a story, you are lacking a heart.

The Arias trial, in my view, is very different. It became a national soap opera because many media organizations were drawn to the graphic sexual testimony – in voice mails, texts and so on – that could be trumpeted for ratings and clicks. It was hardly big news when the unknown Arias killed her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander in 2008 – such murders are sadly common.

The level of savagery – 27 stab wounds, a slit throat, a gunshot to the head – may have been unusual, but it was the trial’s explicit sexual evidence that provided the hook. Arias was soon slotted into the Amanda Knox/Casey Anthony category of attractive white women in trouble.

The Cleveland saga, by contrast, conjures up every parent’s worst nightmare: three teenage girls disappearing for years, their fate unknown and, we now know, according to police, raped in captivity.

London’s Daily Mail scored an interview with the son of suspect Ariel Castro, plus exclusive photos of Castro in the frame house where women were held. Since the British tabloids are known for paying for information, how did the Mail obtain from Anthony Castro what hordes of American journalists could not?

“We did not pay him either for the interview or for the photos,” Daily Mail reporter Michael Zennie told me. “He spoke with us because he wanted to have his story represented.”

Anthony Castro told the Mail in the interview that his father padlocked the doors leading to the basement, attic and garage where Amanda Berry and two other women were allegedly kept, never allowing his family inside.

“If it’s true that he took her captive and forced her into having sex with him and having his child and keeping her hidden and keeping them from sunlight, he really took those girls’ lives,” Anthony Castro was quoted as saying, adding: “He deserves to be behind bars for the rest of her life.”

The fast-moving Cleveland story does have its media circus aspects. On Wednesday the cable news channels, taking their cue from police, were bannering an expected public statement by Berry. But it was her sister, Beth Serrano, who spoke briefly to the assembled media mob, making a plea for the family’s privacy.

And it was a little much when Berry’s grandmother allowed a local station to videotape her first call from Amanda – a moment that feels like it should have remained private.

In a more uplifting vein, Charles Ramsey, a local dishwasher who heard screams from the house and broke down the door, has been making the television rounds.

Many people are “saying you’re a hero,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper told him.

“No, no, no,” Ramsey replied. “Bro, I’m a Christian, an American, and just like you. We bleed same blood, put our pants on the same way.”

Many questions remain, to say the least, about how the kidnapping succeeded for so many years and whether the police fell short. But whatever media excesses unfold in the coming days, the story of the Cleveland women commands our attention as a matter of human compassion. The sooner that Jodi Arias fades from the headlines, the better.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.