DEBORAH CROMBIE: I've long been a big fan of Lisa Black's Theresa MacLean books, set in Cleveland. In fact, when I went to Cleveland for Bouchercon, I kept seeing Cleveland through Theresa's eyes.
Lisa, who is herself a forensic scientist, writes the best forensic investigation novels out there. Now, Lisa had debuted a new series, also set in Cleveland, featuring forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner and detective Jack Renner, and, boy, does it have a twist.
Here Lisa shares with us some of the fascinating things Maggie learns in UNPUNISHED:
THE CHANGING NATURE OF NEWS: EVER WONDER WHY WE KNOW MORE ABOUT THE KARDASHIANS THAN WE DO ABOUT SYRIA?
Well, as a grizzled newspaper editor explains to my character, Maggie, in my new book Unpunished:
“News, as an entity, used to be considered so vital to democracy that the FCC required television channels to have a certain amount of public service content…as if they recognized right away what a time-suck television was going to be. That’s why TV news existed in the first place. When I was a kid you had three networks, they all had the news on at seven and you had no choice but to watch it. But ratings weren’t great—let’s face it, no one in this country has ever been as big on staying informed as we would like to think. So in the late sixties broadcasters discovered market-driven journalism. Fluff, in other words…feel-good stories, lost puppies, recipe ideas and of course, the secret lives of celebrities. It raised ratings and still satisfied the FCC code.
“But then came cable, and people started watching reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore show instead of Dan Rather. A little bit of fluff no longer sufficed. Now we have entire channels of news, quote unquote, that isn’t remotely news. Magazines are the same—they’re probably the only industry in America that’s even worse off than newspapers. Ever wonder why you can stop renewing a magazine and they keep sending it to you for another couple years? Because subscriptions don’t pay for it. Advertisers pay for it, and they want to see high circulation numbers. And corporations want to see profit. Lots and lots of profit.
“And without that profit, no one can afford to create enough new content to fill an entire newspaper. Or an entire 24 hour a day news channel—that’s why I say not just newspapers, but news itself has changed.
“For instance, a lot of the people you see on broadcast news are not reporters. They will show a video segment that looks exactly like a regular old news broadcast, with some pretty person with a perky smile standing on a sidewalk with a microphone telling you about something that happened. She ends with, ‘This is Miss Perfect Teeth in Washington, D.C.’ But Miss Perfect Teeth never tells the viewing audience who she works for. You assume she works for the network, but she actually works for a PR firm or a lobbyist or a candidate. These segments--they’re called Video News Releases-- look just as good and sometimes better than the real thing. The TV channel has twenty-four hours to fill up, VNRs are available, and they’re free. Newspapers get the same thing in printed press releases. The editors got to get the paper into the rollers, and the release is there, and it’s free. So they give it to the copyeditor. Why the hell not? But it’s not news.
“We have a whole generation growing up who don’t remember that broadcast news used to mean someone came on and told you what happened. It wasn’t four people sitting around bickering like kids on a playground about their opinion of what happened. Then they bring on ‘experts’ and ‘consultants’ who get a few minutes to push whatever agenda they’re plugging that week. They look good, sound professional, and play into the political leanings of the target audience. But when they’re done all the audience has gotten is a slightly classier version of the Jerry Springer show, which apparently keeps them entertained enough that they don’t complain. But what they don’t get is useful information.” Such as the play-by-play in Syria.
This is only one of the lessons that forensic scientist Maggie Gardiner learns as she is thrust into this miasma of moving targets. Along with homicide detective Jack Renner, she works to learn why the staff of the local paper keep turning into that day’s headline…and that perhaps Jack has not entirely given up the questionable ways of peacekeeping she discovered in That Darkness.
Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.
DEBS: And here's more about UNPUNISHED
It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines—literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today—and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn’t trust at all….
Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer--even if Jack is still checking names off his own private list.
READERS, do you remember when news was news?