"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

How I Missed My Chance to Fulfill a Lifelong Dream (And Lay the Smack Down On Nancy Grace In the Process) 

Obviously, I've been otherwise occupied for a little while. This past weekend, I went to my friend's cabin in Eastern Washington for what seems to be the Second Annual Chumstick Expedition (notes from what has now become known as the First Annual Chumstick Expedition may be found here). That kept me away from the Internets from Thursday through Sunday, and since my return I've been catching up both at work and at home.

But I want to tell you a weird story. I have published three articles on legal topics on the Web, each in a heavily footnoted law-review style. The first of these was You Won't Believe Your Eyes: Digital Photography as Legal Evidence, written in the spring of 1995; the following year I wrote Taking the Fourth Amendment to Bits: The Department of Justice Guidelines For Computer Searches and Seizures and Every Artist Is a Cannibal: The Strange Saga of Negativland, the Letter U, and the Numeral 2. You can tell that these are all serious works of scholarship because they have colons in their titles.

Of these three pieces, I am most fond of the last one; it examines the problems of fair use under copyright law, using Negativland's U2 record as an illustrative example. Almost no one ever reads it. The computer search piece generates a bit more traffic than the Negativland piece, and every now and then I get an e-mail from someone who would like to cite it, or reproduce a section of it, or simply to ask if I have kept up with recent developments in the field (I haven't). The digital photography article, however, has attracted a steady readership now for over a decade, and rarely does a month go by without my receiving some inquiry about digital photography as legal evidence.

Now, the fact is, I really don't know much about the subject. All of these were student articles, written a long time ago, and both the legal landscape and the practical realities of technology and culture have evolved. I get anxious when people approach me as though I was an expert on the legal niceties presented by digital imaging. It makes me feel self-conscious, like I'm perpetrating some kind of a fraud by negligently allowing strangers to conclude that I know something about anything.

Still, the articles do draw traffic. Just this morning I found myself thinking about the inquiries I get, and it occurred to me that I could put a PayPal donation button on each one, along with a suggested donation for reprints. Or, I thought, I could kill two birds with one stone and link the whole donation process to a master page that included all of the usual caveats I offer to those who inquire - the papers are just student projects, they're out of date, etc. I figured I could clear my conscience with the disclaimers, but still pick up a few bucks here and there on the honor system (especially if I offer some nice looking PDF copies). After all, the research is dated, but it was pretty exhaustive in its day.

And then, the weird part. Later this morning - just a few hours after my PayPal epiphany - I got a phone call at the office. It was from a producer for CNN, calling on behalf of the Nancy Grace program. It seems that they were in the market for an expert on the subject of digital photography as legal evidence. Would I be available?

There are two things you should know at this point. First, I really dislike Nancy Grace. I mean to say that I dislike her public persona, of course - I have never met Nancy Grace, and I might well find her sweet and charming in intimate conversation. Not likely, but possible, I suppose. I do not care at all for Nancy Grace the media personality, however. Not at all.

The second thing you should know is that I have always, always, since I was a craven lad with braces and acne, wanted to be a television pundit. Since the advent of cable news programs, I have specifically wanted to become a cable news television pundit. I'm serious about this - it's been a lifelong dream. You are certainly free to think that's one of the saddest things you've ever heard, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with you, but there it is.

So, here I am talking to Nancy Grace's producer, and I'm thinking this is it, my career as a pundit is finally on track, but I hear myself saying that I'm really no authority on either evidence or digital photography. I'm thinking that I would look pretty good onscreen in a dark double-breasted suit with a traditional white shirt and maybe a new tie for the occasion, but I hear myself saying that no, no I hadn't actually dealt with any digital photography issues in practice. I'm thinking that I'll finally get my chance to humiliate Nancy Grace's execrable public persona (as opposed to Nancy Grace the potentially swell human being, who may bake wonderful cookies for all I know) on her own program with the power of my knowledge and acumen, but I hear myself saying thank you and goodbye to the producer, whose name I didn't catch and whose number I didn't ask for.

Opportunity knocks, and I'm in the shower.

This may seem like an amusing little anecdote, a throwaway story like the ones I enjoy telling down at the pub, but actually this has me more than a bit rattled. First of all, I don't like coincidences. That this phone call should come on this day, when I find myself thinking about those old articles for the first time in weeks, makes me uneasy. Second, why didn't I agree to appear? Sure, I'm no expert on digital photography as legal evidence, but I've seen the kind of people who become known as television pundits - Nancy Grace, for instance - and few of them are experts, either. I could easily have brazened my way through. I would have had to cram a bit, to catch up with the past decade's developments, but so what? If there is any topic on which I am an expert, it is cramming. And anyway, the bar for television pundits is set awfully low - remember back when Bill Clinton, who is (it must be said) a raging king-hell weasel but who was, for all that, a fairly competent chief executive, got himself in a spot of trouble for allowing a chubby intern to smear lipstick all over his offical presidential dipstick? There was Ann Coulter, materializing ghoul-like on every cable news show and invariably identified as a "constitutional law scholar," opining on the imminent threat to the Republic. If that twitter-pated skankbag is a "constitutional law scholar," then my dog is the reincarnation of Harry Blackmun. No, there was no reason - aside from sheer cowardice - for my running away from what was, after all, likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a real television pundit.

The only upside is that I can stop worrying about whether Nancy Grace is actually a nice woman in person, and instead continue intensely disliking her media image. There is a certain cold comfort in that.




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