Fall of an Avenging Angel

America has never been more captivated by crime or easily stoked by outrage. Why have we tired of Nancy Grace?

Nancy Grace
Nancy Grace Charlie Powell

In 2008, shortly after Joran van der Sloot appeared to confess to the murder of Natalee Holloway, Nancy Grace stared out of hundreds of thousands of TV sets like an avenging angel. She wore a cream-colored blouse; she clenched her jaw and inhaled a deep breath. She rolled a clip of van der Sloot, lounging in the passenger seat of a car, describing how he met Holloway on her high school spring break trip and then disposed of her body in the sea. “That’s van der Sloot,” she said, jabbing a finger at the camera, her voice full of bile, “describing what happened the night Natalee went missing.” When she fixed her gaze on the camera, her eyes appeared to be edged with tears.

This was pure Nancy Grace: a self-styled “victims’ rights activist” and pioneer in the art of outrage whose special skill is exploiting the public’s fascination with upper-middle-class murders and missing white women. Her psychic universe is populated by the young, beautiful, and dead: “the gorgeous 30-year-old who vanished not far from home,” the “gorgeous 24-year-old Ivy League doctoral student who disappeared,” the “Alabama beauty” last seen on the beach. As a prosecutor—she practiced law in Atlanta for 10 years before moving to TV—she was very good at winning. But she was also known for a theatrical flair; defense attorneys accused her of suppressing evidence for emotional effect. An Atlanta defense lawyer told the New Republic in 2005, “You needed three lawyers to try a case with Nancy Grace—two to watch her and one to argue the case.”

On her show, she’s helped to shape a decade’s worth of suspected murderers and rapists in the public imagination, stressing their cruelty, their alien coldness. “Emotionless,” she said of van der Sloot in 2008. “Highly, highly disturbing.” She conjured him for us, delivered him for our judgment. She did the same for Scott Peterson, Jodi Arias, and Amanda Knox. In her rush to show compassion for their victims, she gleefully shreds the accused long before any jury has indicted them, her gut the only corroboration she needs. “Look at his eyes,” she said recently as a mug shot flashed on screen.

When Grace interviews defense attorneys or expert witnesses who disagree with her, she drenches every question in an acrid sarcasm: “Do you really think that?” “You are not seriously saying that, are you?” Her coverage of the trial of Casey Anthony—the accused toddler killer she dubbed Tot Mom—drew 4.5 million viewers, breaking viewership records for HLN, the CNN sister network with a self-declared focus on the “must-see, must-share” stories of the day. That year, Grace appeared almost daily on Good Morning America to hawk the latest trial developments; her stories were widely linked to and cited. “HLN’s virago of vengeance,” the New York Times dubbed her in 2011. In 2012, The Newsroom satirized her coverage of the Anthony trial, but even as Aaron Sorkin’s series assailed her style of journalism, it held her up as an exemplar of a kind of putrid efficacy—a manipulator who knew what viewers wanted and was cynical enough to deliver it.

But in recent years, Grace, whose final show airs on Thursday, has seen her cultural relevance fade. Though she can still produce the occasional viral clip—last year’s irate segment, with rapper 2 Chainz, about the legalization of pot, for example—she no longer commands the news cycle. Her ratings have fallen off, too. At the end of 2011, Nancy Grace ranked 18th among all cable news shows; this past September, she ranked 45th, behind the 3 a.m. Fox News talk show Red Eye and just ahead of Jay Leno’s Garage on CNBC.* HLN has been making a general push for gravitas in lieu of sensationalism—to remake itself, as Jeff Zucker has said, more in the image of CNN. Now it’s filling Grace’s time slot with a show hosted by Ashleigh Banfield.

It’s a striking moment for Grace to make her exit. The past few years have been dominated by headlines about criminal justice and sexual assault—the latter has lately consumed even the coverage of the 2016 campaign. The cultural appetite for grim true crime storytelling, meanwhile, has never been so keen. We are seemingly more susceptible than ever to both Grace’s material and her method, to narratives about sexual violence and to blunt outrage. What happened to Nancy Grace?

Nancy Grace premiered on HLN 10 years after O.J. Simpson first demonstrated the television market for celebrity trial coverage and nearly a decade and a half after Steven Brill permanently installed legal punditry on cable with Court TV. But Grace’s persona was less “expert legal analyst” than one-woman judge and jury. Her first show included a segment in which she wrung pathos from an interview with the parents of a murdered pregnant woman and then mercilessly grilled the parents of the husband who was suspected of the crime. From the start, her own tragic past was key to her brand—in 1980, when she was 19 years old, her fiancé had been murdered outside a convenience store. As she writes in her 2006 memoir Objection, this was a turning point, the moment when “random violence entered my world.” The specter of random violence would become her great subject.

For years, she tapped into the perennial cultural enthusiasm for righteous witch hunts and armchair convictions. “Tot Mom’s lies seem to have worked,” she declared after Anthony was acquitted in 2012. “The devil is dancing tonight.” Unsurprisingly, her rush to judgment proved dangerous; her judgment was often wrong. She misidentified who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart. In 2006, she became one of the loudest voices condemning the Duke lacrosse players accused of rape.* It’s unnerving to watch her coverage of the scandal now, to see her seethe with contempt from the moment the players’ mug shots appeared on her screen. “I’m so glad they didn’t miss a lacrosse game over a little thing like gang rape!” she declared on one show.

Of course, it was never her insights or instincts as a prosecutor that drew viewers to Grace; it was exactly this cleansing, angry certitude, a certitude untroubled by the absence of facts. A 2006 New York Observer profile called Grace a “professional vilifier of the criminal-defense industry,” but she didn’t actually indict systems so much as stock characters—she railed in ad hominem detail against the bottom-feeding defense attorneys who contorted themselves to justify their clients’ actions and lily-livered judges who failed to dole out sufficiently harsh sentences as much as the rapists and killers themselves. What she’d learned from her fiancé’s death, as she put it in her book, was that “there is a very real struggle going on in our world today—the age-old struggle between good and evil.” For Grace, the criminal justice system became a realm of damsels and dragons, a prime-time morality play that she starred in and cast.

But in recent years, our legal and crime narratives have begun to change shape, especially when it comes to sexual violence. The myth of rape as something perpetrated by madmen in alleyways has long faded. We’re in an age of unprecedented attention to systemic failures. Making a Murderer is not just a show about murder; it’s a surgical dismemberment of the whole judicial process. Today we want to understand colleges’ bureaucratic oversights in adjudicating sexual assault or the ingrained biases that guide routine traffic stops. It’s telling that Grace’s slew of episodes devoted to Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of sexual assault, failed to make her into a dominant voice on the topic. It was her successor, Banfield, who made waves with her coverage of the Turner case—by reading the letter from the victim aloud on CNN, in a segment preceded by trigger warnings about the letter’s graphicness.

Banfield’s somber, steady approach may have been better pitched to viewers attuned to seeing a case like this as part of a wider cultural struggle. It’s worth noting that alignment with the perspective of victims is now the default media position in a way that it once wasn’t and that Grace may even be partly to thank for this development. But even when she was right—and it is hard to deny there was some satisfaction to be found in her medieval wrath—she was so enamored of human drama that she was too often blind to the context around it, so focused on giving us villains that she ignored the structures that aided and protected them. This may also be why her coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement felt so forced—the unrelenting news of police shootings has made it impossible to pretend that each new case is somehow phantasmagoric or strange. Our new mode is to see the kinds of stories Grace covers not as one-off scandals but as evidence of racism, sexism, or some other deep societal flaw. And yet through all of this, Nancy Grace has raged nightly: determined to frame every crime as a gory, unforeseeable terror.                           

We don’t know exactly why Nancy Grace is ending—whether it’s that the airwaves have grown too crowded with outrage or that CNN recognized how outmoded Grace’s approach to crime has become. But there’s something undeniably off-putting now in seeing Grace pivot from a segment on Brock Turner to one on “a high-powered financial guru who actually jokes with police when he’s suspected of stabbing his gorgeous wife 22 times in a Psycho-style shower attack,” classifying both stories as the type of lurid freak attacks that made her name. In order for her to loom so large for so long, she needed the cannibals and the toddler-killers to stoke our deepest fears. Now all around us we see signs of how entrenched our cultural demons are and how banal their disguises can be. So Nancy Grace’s fall was surely inevitable: She came to seem like a shadow puppeteer in a world that proved even messier and scarier than the one she wanted us to imagine.

*Correction, Oct. 14, 2016: This article originally misstated that the Fox News talk show Red Eye airs at 3 p.m. It airs at 3 a.m. In addition, this article originally misstated the date of the Duke lacrosse scandal. It was in 2006, not 2005.