On Sept. 8, a lithe and comely South Korean orphan named Melinda Duckett—21 years old and known to friends as Mindy—went to her grandparents’ retirement home and shot herself in the head.
That was fewer than 24 hours after she had taped an interview for Nancy Grace’s prime-time Headline News show to talk about the Aug. 27 disappearance of her 2-year-old son, Trenton.
In the days after Melinda Duckett’s suicide, Ms. Grace utilized the services of Anna Cordasco, who is the managing director of the New York firm Citigate Sard Verbinnen, which specializes in below-the-radar corporate-image resuscitation.
Ms. Cordasco, who has Martha Stewart as another high-profile TV client, is old friends with Ms. Grace’s executive producer at Headline News, Dean Sicoli. Ms. Cordasco and her colleagues immediately set to work restoring the fire-breathing former prosecutor to her pre-Duckett level of dignity and national esteem.
Except, according to three sources close to Ms. Grace, once the crisis manager stepped in, the crisis just got worse.
In mid-October, six weeks after Duckett’s suicide, Ms. Cordasco e-mailed out a letter to producers of TV entertainment and news shows, pitching them on an upbeat story about Ms. Grace’s dogged pursuit of little Trenton and, if applicable, his killer.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Observer, proposed a story on Ms. Grace’s upcoming trip to Florida, where she would join the boy’s father, Joshua Duckett, at an outpost called Team Trenton Headquarters. From there, Ms. Grace would broadcast her show each night, confer intimately with the police and continue to shine her national klieg light on the case of the missing 2-year-old—undaunted by the tragic fate of his mother, who, the letter noted, “committed suicide after appearing on her show.”
Ms. Cordasco mentioned parenthetically that Ms. Grace might even “go diving” in search of Trenton. CNN could provide footage, or Ms. Grace would happily do a “video diary.”
As near as can be ascertained, no one bit.
Meanwhile, privately, to reporters, Ms. Cordasco was touting the close relationship between Ms. Grace and the local police.
Ms. Cordasco sent an e-mail to print reporters in the Florida region, a copy of which was read to The Observer over the phone. In it, she wrote that Ms. Grace “will be going to Leesburg to search for Trenton Duckett with his father Josh …. Josh and the local police have asked Nancy to come down in order to bring the national spotlight back on the case. In addition, the police want to give Nancy special access to their helicopters, etc. Nancy has already made two trips to Florida to investigate the missing-child case and assist in the search efforts on her own.”
“A lot of the media feels like we coordinated our efforts around Nancy Grace and her show coming to Florida,” said Capt. James Pogue of the Marion County Sheriff’s Department. “And honestly, that is not the truth. What happened, it had nothing to do with Nancy Grace coming to town and doing all that. Our objective was to get Trenton Duckett’s face back on national TV so that the world would know who Trenton Duckett was, what he looked like, so they would start looking for him again.”
On Nov. 22, Lauren Ritchie, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, pounced on Ms. Cordasco’s talking point. “Just so the truth is known, Leesburg police did not invite Grace to come here, and when questioned about it, the public-relations firm backed away from that claim,” she wrote.
Ms. Ritchie also noted that there were no police helicopters to borrow anyway.
The piece caused an uproar at CNN and Headline News. “There were certainly some people pretty upset over here,” said one high-level network source.
Two days before Ms. Grace arrived, the local police made a big announcement: After two months of operating under the premise that the boy was likely dead, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office announced that it now believed, on the basis of no particularly new information, that he might be alive. Ms. Grace arrived in a flurry of fanfare and on Nov. 16 conducted the first of two live broadcasts from Leesburg, where Trenton was last seen with his mother, at a neighborhood Wendy’s.
On Nov. 17, authorities received nearly 100 tips because of Ms. Grace’s show. None, alas, has yielded any useful information as yet.
“We were brought on to work with her specifically on the Trenton Duckett issue,” Ms. Cordasco said on Nov. 27, in a short interview with The Observer. She hung up quickly, promising to call back. The following day, she called from her cell phone. “We are on retainer; we very much work for Nancy,” Ms. Cordasco said, and then hung up. She did not respond to other questions left in messages.
One source close to Ms. Grace said the anchor had fired the crisis manager.
“Citigate has not been let go. They are continuing to work on retainer, on an as-needed basis,” said Ms. Grace through a spokesperson on Nov. 28.
In Ms. Cordasco’s pitch e-mails, she also noted that Ms. Grace was headed to Biloxi on Oct. 28 to “help actually build homes lost in Katrina … to sheet rock, paint, etc.” Ms. Grace, she noted, was “really an amazing woman.”
On Nov. 21, lawyers representing Duckett’s estate filed suit against Ms. Grace and CNN, charging intentional misrepresentation of the interview, infliction of distress, and that Ms. Grace and CNN made Ms. Duckett into a public figure and then exploited her likeness for ratings. The complaint was published by the Smoking Gun that same day.
And on Nov. 23, The Biloxi Sun Herald reported on Ms. Grace’s visit. She traveled with a group from Christ United Methodist, her church in New York, and spent a few days helping to rebuild homes on Fayard Street.
Ms. Grace went “incognito” to the job site, eschewing her usual tastefully bright power suits for a baseball cap, construction-wear and a pair of work boots, the reporter noted. “Grace did not seek out publicity on her trip.”
What Becomes a Civil War Most?
What do you call a problem like escalating sectarian violence in Iraq?
“A civil war,” said Matt Lauer on the Today show on Nov. 27. NBC brass had discussed it, he told viewers, and had come to the bold and publicity-generating—if not exactly jaw-dropping—conclusion that democracy is maybe not flourishing quite the way we planned.
The other two broadcast networks, equally boldly, have not followed suit.
“It was their decision to make and their process,” said Jon Banner, the executive producer of ABC’s World News. “We constantly discuss editorial matters here—all the time, every day. How that decis ion got made there I have no idea, nor do I want to guess.”
“To be honest with you, I think it’s a political statement, not a news judgment,” said Rome Hartman, the executive producer of the CBS Evening News. “We deal with the events of the day, and we decide the best way to describe those events based on the news of the day, not by—never mind, I’m not gonna go there.”
Then he did.
“It should be noted that the day that this pronouncement—and who makes pronouncements anyway? But that’s what it sounded like—was a quiet day, relatively speaking, in Iraq,” he said.
CNN’s official statement on the matter is: “CNN will continue to report on what is happening in Iraq on a day-to-day basis. And we will also report on the ongoing debate in academic and political circles about what constitutes a civil war.”
It perhaps goes without saying that the Fox News Channel has not leaped onto the civil-war bandwagon. Fox anchors will join most of their colleagues in television news in anticipating their own Cronkite Moments.
“Every news organization is entitled to make editorial calls how they see fit. This was not a decision we came to lightly, without a great deal of discussion. We reached out to experts, military analysts, historians, people on the ground in Iraq, and they all unanimously agreed this was the appropriate label for the conflict,” said Allison Gollust, a spokeswoman for NBC News.
Meanwhile, all three broadcast network anchors, plus Anderson Cooper of CNN and Shep Smith of Fox, are scuttling off to Amman, Jordan, on Nov. 29—producers, security details and White House correspondents in tow. There they will cover President Bush’s summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki regarding whatever it is that’s happening in Iraq. The Big Three, according to their executive producers, will stay for a day or two—maybe longer if necessary.
“This is a critical time in the war in Iraq,” said Nightly News executive producer John Reiss. “It just made sense to send Brian [Williams] there.”
“It seems we’re on the cusp of something big with regard to the way we’re going in Iraq,” Mr. Banner said. “Everyone seems to be making a final push before there is some decision about what to do next. It’s important for us to get there.”