Nancy Grace on Who's Right, What's Wrong, and the Trouble With Honey Boo Boo

 Joe Pugliese

One of the only stars in CNN's universe is quietly moving in on Hollywood while channeling America's rage - and the revulsion of "elite Upper West Siders" - with her attacks on everyone.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Nancy Grace's nose is wet. It's days before Christmas, and she's squeezed behind a smoked-glass desk in her tiny New York studio, eyes red, voice hoarse, her hair unruffled despite her sickness, husband and kids hovering on the alert as she digs up a box of Kleenex before blowing into a tissue long and hard. She's under the weather and strangely subdued until an assistant barks we're about to roll. Then suddenly she comes alive.

"We got Tony from Florida on the line," the assistant yells.

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"If Tony from Florida is really Joe from Florida, will ya tell him not to mention my outfit again?" Grace gripes, shoving the Kleenex aside.

Joe is a regular, with a penchant for varying his name and complimenting his idol's clothes (a faux-lizard jacket today, with sweatpants beneath the desk), though he can't see them, given that the show is being taped and callers don't make visual contact with the host.

"Nancy, you're looking swell," he says regardless, going on to ask about police surveillance. This prompts Grace to unleash a clarion call for the extensive use of GPS locators, something that was crucial in the 2005 conviction of wife-killer Scott Peterson, of whom she adds, "May he rot in hell."

Such unrestrained ardor is the trademark of the 52-year-old HLN host and prosecutor-turned-household name. The only face easily identified with HLN, she earns roughly $4 million a year, has homes in Atlanta and New York City, a long-lasting and loyal staff -- and remains one of the few bright stars in today's increasingly embattled CNN empire. At a time when the company's domestic networks are struggling to compete, with its channels routinely panned for being bland and adrift, love her or hate her, Grace stands out as neither.

"I consider her the standard bearer for the network," says Scot Safon, executive vp and GM of HLN, where Grace's contract runs through December 2013. "When we started our transformation from being CNN's Headline News to a differentiated offering in 2005, we had this opportunity to create destination programming. She provided an angle on stories that was fascinating: It's almost as if she's doing the investigation while she is doing the show."

Her devoted fans, largely women, lap this up, both on Nancy Grace and ABC's Good Morning America, where she is a regular. Less than two months after The New York Times in 2011 wrote that her audience had evaporated, she bounced back with her highest ratings following the Casey Anthony verdict. (Grace had hammered Anthony for allegedly murdering her child, only for the mother to be found not guilty.) Her 2 p.m. show on July 5, 2011, right after the verdict, drew 4.57 million viewers, the network's best hour ever, and another 2.9 million tuned in at primetime.

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Grace's magic? Her rage is her audience's too: She can frame a confounding world in black and white, with no confusion along the way. In Grace's view, there are innocent and guilty, responsible and irresponsible, and ne'er the twain shall meet. The courts might not have convicted Anthony, but she did. It's refreshingly simple and, for a viewer, sometimes cathartic.

This justice-by-TV has made her a target for media critics, "a snarling persona who is the face of retribution on television," in the words of Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. "She's the perfect Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, demanding a sentence first and a verdict afterward."

With no big trials dominating the news, her ratings year-to-date have averaged a much weaker 463,000 among total viewers and 149,000 in the 25-to-54 demo. Even so, she remains a heat-seeking missile. She's railed against TLC's cringe-worthy Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, calling it "a pedophile's dream," and in mid-August (unbeknownst to Grace at the time -- and still unseen by her, according to her spokesperson) Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama The Newsroom portrayed her as a ratings-snatching, bottom-feeding villain, noting "no one's ever gone broke in America serving up a woman who makes other women feel superior. It's all based on an emotional appeal, the way she would be with a jury if there was no judge there to stop her."

This came on the heels of a favorite target's suicide, that of Toni Medrano, a 29-year-old Minneapolis mom who faced two manslaughter counts for accidentally smothering her 3-week-old son, Adrian, in November while intoxicated. Grace had nicknamed her "Vodka Mom" and ladled shots on air to show how much Medrano had imbibed. On July 2, Medrano set herself on fire, the result of what her family called a "cyberbullying" campaign that led to her death.

Of course, Grace's refusal to back down -- along with her frequent presumption of guilt -- galvanizes critics, some of whom have formed a website, "I've been told [about it] but never visited it," she says of the site, which includes a petition to take her off the air and states on top, "The verdict is in … Nancy Grace is once again found totally malicious and incompetent."

Even Court TV founder Steven Brill, who gave Grace her break on television, says he now regrets it. "I feel like I owe the country 50 hours of service," he quips. "It's part of the coarsening of our national dialogue to have someone [like her] on crusades to have people behind bars."

Grace has a typically tart response for her media accusers: "I really don't think the elite clique of Upper West Siders gives a rat's ass about the children and the crime victims that I represent."

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