Welcome to Headline News

The news industry is a funny business. And I don’t mean “funny ha-ha.”
It’s been a weird week for me and the rest of the news staff at The Herald. Like everybody else, we are shocked and saddened by the death and allegations surrounding the death of Shaniya Davis, the Fayetteville girl whose body was discovered discarded just off Walker Road near the Carolina Trace community Monday. Because her body was found in Sanford … and because of the unexplained video surveillance of Davis and her alleged killer, Mario McNeill, in a Sanford hotel before the murder, our city has been thrust into the national spotlight.
And this certainly isn’t the kind of spotlight we want. Nor was I thrilled to receive a call from CNN’s Headline News asking me to “report” on the case for Nancy Grace’s show.
Yes, THAT Nancy Grace — the brash victims’ rights advocate who uses her one hour each night to speculate and condemn, rather than to report and analyze. A past Herald editor had appeared on her show back in 2006 after the disappearance of Michelle Bullard. His experience wasn’t a good one, and because of Grace’s reputation, I really had no desire to put myself through the ringer on national TV.
But I said “yes” anyway. And this week’s column is about that experience. I realize there are so many things to say about Shaniya’s tragic death, but it says a lot that in a week where I watched searchers scour the woods along N.C. 87 and learn that a body was found, the oddest experience I had was a phone interview with a TV host.
I received a call from Grace’s people on Tuesday, the day after the discovery. The Herald’s Gordon Anderson had already done a phone interview with Joy Behar’s show on Headline News the night before. We both found it odd that either of us had been asked to provide “expert analysis” on the case … especially considering the investigation was being handled in Cumberland County instead of Lee.
I told the producers I would talk, but only about my experience during Monday’s search. I said I could provide eye witness accounts of the wooded areas they searched in … the proximity to a major highway … the distance from the hotel … the weather conditions … the fact that a tropical storm a few days earlier made the search a little more difficult. I did not, however, want to talk about the charges against Shaniya’s mother and the man accused of killing the girl. All I knew about these items were what I read in wire reports … I was by no means an “expert.”
So hours before airtime (8 p.m.), I had my first “pre-interview” with one of the producers, who went over bullet-points of what would be discussed on the show. The interview turned more into a “how to talk to Nancy” class, as I was told to never say, “I don’t know,” or “We haven’t heard anything new,” or else Nancy would “eat me alive.” I reiterated that I knew very little about the suspects themselves.
Then 8 p.m. rolled around, and I sat in my office, phone to my ear, listening to the Nancy Grace Show … a show filled with clips of Shaniya’s father crying a praying, images of Shaniya and the suspect near the elevator and tons of photos of the little girl growing up. She began the discussion by “unleashing the lawyers,” who did little more than say somebody needed to burn in hell for the crime.
Great analysis.
A few other reporters were on after that … one of them saying that McNeill had a lot of knowledge of Lee County because the body was dumped along a farm road. Thirty minutes into the show, a caller asked Grace a question about McNeill, the suspect. And just as I asked them not to, Grace answered by directing the caller to “Billy Liggett with the Sanford Herald.”
I froze for about a half second before stating the obvious about McNeill – that little was known about why he was in Sanford — and I immediately turned my answer back to the crime scene, saying I disagreed with the earlier assertion that McNeill knew Lee County well. My reasoning — the body was dumped less than a mile from N.C. 87 and was less than 100 feet from the road. That all points to the decision to rid of the body being not very well thought out along whatever country road caught his eye between Sanford and Fayetteville.
My answer lasted two minutes. Grace never interrupted me … nor did she acknowledge my answer, going on immediately to a forensics expert to talk about the body.
And with that, my “expertise” was done.
I did stay on the phone for the entire show … listening to Grace display bad taste with a dead Farrah Fawcett joke about one of her producer’s bad Charlie’s Angels hairdo during one break, and hearing her reveal somewhat of a human side during another when she expressed her heart-felt condolences to Shaniya’s father off camera.
The show then ended, and a producer came on to tell me I “did great” and that “Nancy loved me.” To that, I rolled my eyes, thanked them and went on to finish up that day’s paper.
I won’t lie … there was a part of me that was very excited to be on “national TV.” I even called my mom beforehand. But when it was all said and done, I didn’t feel like I contributed anything of substance … nor did I feel like the show itself did anything relevant either.
If the experience taught me one thing, it’s that our job isn’t to tell readers how angry or emotional a story like this should make them feel.
It’s our job to just provide the facts and raise questions where they’re warranted. These “news” shows don’t run that way.
Then again, they’re entertainment. Once the Shaniya story becomes “old hat” to them, they’re gone … regardless of how emotionally attached they’ve become.
And we’ll be better off without the spotlight.

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