Last night on Larry King Live, Bill Maher complained vociferously about the overblown cable news coverage of the latest chapter in the JonBenet Ramsey story, referring to the coverage as “eye candy.”    

Eye candy, of course, is standard on cable TV news.  News anchors and commentators, particularly female ones, are nearly indistinguishable from mannequins.  Their appearance is so extraordinarily polished and perfected that most supermodels, placed next to them, would appear more flawed and natural.  Add to this the surreal colors and lighting of the newsrooms; the careful selection of compelling images regardless of relevance to content; and busy, complex graphics, and you have a recipe for visual fixation and mental distraction.  Maher is disappointed by this because he was brought up, as he said, to think of cable news as news for “smart people.”  Come now, Bill, PBS and C-Span is news for smart people, not CNN.  A whole team of makeup artists could work on Margaret Warner, and she would still look like the neighborhood librarian, god bless her.  And I suspect that most “smart people” prefer her that way, given her necessarily serious and authoritative role.

But this is neither new or surprising. What shocked me is that Maher proceeded to provide a more specific example of “eye candy” by suggesting that the revival of the JonBenet story gave the media the chance to show images of the child “prancing around like a whore,” as he put it.  Now, this was a remarkable statement, even for Bill Maher, and I expected Larry’s switchboard to light up with outraged callers defending the child’s and, perhaps, even the parent’s innocence.  But either those calls weren’t put through or they were never received, perhaps because too many agreed with Maher’s assessment to comment.  But what exactly might they have agreed with?

This statement, “JonBenet prancing around like a whore,” particularly within the context of its reference to constant media coverage and image repetition, is remarkable for a number of reasons:

First, it suggests that the child was so successfully fetishized and sexualized that her image fascinates people to the point of obsession;

Second, it suggests that an innocent child, when fetishized in such a manner, appears “whore”-like and thus, by definition, sexually provocative to an adult male onlooker—a clear taboo;

Third, it suggests the public voyeurism that is inherent in such a display, which is both remarkable and hypocritical in a culture in which pedophilia is so demonized that its perpetrators are literally cast out of society, even after they have served their time;   

Fourth, it openly acknowledges the culture’s obsession with what is, according to Maher’s characterization, taboo imagery intended to titillate or at least fascinate even a “normal” man; and

Fifth, it imparts some of the blame on the victim, or, in this case, not the poor child but the parents who were complicit in her victimization by using her in such a manner.

Public and law enforcement suspicion of the parents’ involvement in the girl’s murder, which has never really let up since the beginning, is a direct consequence of item five.  Any mother who would treat her child as a doll and display her as such might be tempted to objectify her in more perverse and horrible ways.  So it goes. The Boulder D.A.’s latest efforts to vindicate the parents led to the current fiasco—a first-class trip out of Thailand for a very creepy, but apparently innocent man.  As has been pointed out countless times, had this been a poor black child that was so murdered, her case would be long forgotten, as would any efforts to vindicate the parents.  Her image would not fascinate in the same way as that of the blonde-haired blue-eyed child whose defiled innocence captured the imagination of those such as Mr. Karr and John and Jane Q. Public, who were raised to admire the fair-haired, fair-skinned face and regard it as the cultural standard for beauty and wholesomeness.

As for CNN, eye candy, and tabloid TV—nothing new.  What is troubling is what lies beneath the surface, the subtext of the imagery, whether it is Nancy Grace’s highly buffed and plasticized face or JonBenet’s dolled-up one.  Those who would object to open and natural depictions of human sexuality (within the context of a narrative about and for adults, for example) will continue to be fascinated by imagery that fetishizes the individual and thus obscures reality and distracts from the conscious awareness that is the essence of civic and political involvement and responsibility.  Such imagery might be appropriate in entertainment, but not in the news.