A recent headline in my local paper, the Portsmouth Herald, reads "McDonough Questioned About Sex, Lies, and Duct Tape." The story is a tragedy – a young woman died. The details are upsetting. Yet - I just read the article top to bottom. Why? I want to know.
Walking on Market Street in downtown Portsmouth, I come upon Marlene Allen. “Well, because it’s so lurid!” She says. “that’s like a novel, that’s like Hannibal Lector!”
Turns out I’m not the only one compelled to read every word. The digital news editor for the Herald’s Seacoastonline.com, Glenn Sabelewski, says readers are devouring their daily trial coverage.
In case you have managed to avoid learning the details of the trial, here they are according to the testimony of Kat McDonough, Seth Mazzaglia’s ex girlfriend. Mazzaglia and McDonough were seeking out a sadomasochistic threesome. McDonough brought her coworker from Target, UNH student Lizzi Marriott, to their apartment in Dover. McDonough says Mazzaglia murdered and raped Marriot, before they both deposited her body the Piscataqua. But since no body has been found, there’s little hard evidence. The defense is arguing Kat McDonough is responsible.
The court’s information officer, Carole Alfano, says four newspapers and nine TV stations – including CBS’s 48 Hours and Dateline NBC covered the initial testimony; six outlets have stuck around for the long haul. “We haven’t seen this since Pamela Smart,” she says. That was back in 1991.
Here where the murder took place, The Herald’s Seacoast Media Group has had one of seven reporters on the case full time for almost a month. Executive editor Howard Altschiller says stories get above the fold placement based on one metric: which story is the most compelling. Obviously this passes that test.
“You’re hearing things like ‘breath play,’ ‘steel kisses,' the roles of dominants, submissives,” Altschiller says. “I’ve been doing this for 27 years I’ve never seen a case like this, I’ve never seen a trial like this.”
The details are playing out in daily installments like Law and Order meets Quentin Tarantino.
Joshua Meyrowitz teaches media studies at UNH -- not psychoanalysis. But, he says, there’s probably more to our collective captivation than meets the eye. On the one hand, Kat McDonough and Seth Mazzaglia look like our neighbors or friends. We see our own lives projected onto a narrative usually reserved for TV. But it’s also comforting, that it’s them ensnared in this tragedy, not us.
On the other hand, Meyrowitz says, McDonough and Mazzaglia’s story also challenges us. “There are aspects of private sexual behavior that are funky and fun and crazy and purposefully nutty,” he says. Those things make life rich, and are purposefully private. This case brings our private lives into the public, “and sort of raises the question of what’s the appropriate mix of being interesting and unusual with your close intimates, and crossing the line into insanity and evil,” says Meyrowitz.
However captivating, with so few local reporters left these days, having more than six outlets at the trial every day for a month “pushes out other stories the resources could be used for in our area,” Meyrowitz worries. But at Seacoast Media Group, Howard Altschiller disagrees. He reminds me that this happened here, in our community. And “with each day of the trial more context comes out, it gives the audience, people who have have mourned the loss of an innocent life some context to understand what happened.”
Of course, the story is also just... compelling.