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So What Do You Do, Nancy Grace, CNN Headline News?

Leaving Court TV, Grace weighs in on Alec Baldwin, Paris Hilton, Star Jones and the network's new direction

By Diane Clehane - May 18, 2007
swdyd_nancy_grace.jpgLove her or loathe her, Nancy Grace has been responsible for more than her fair share of compelling television moments. There was the time in 2003 during a Larry King Live broadcast when she found herself on the receiving end of a tirade courtesy of Scott Peterson's father, Lee, when he accused her of having a "personal vendetta" against his son (one of the rare instances she didn't strike back because, she says, thoughts of how her own father would have defended her made her hold her tongue). Her interview with Michael Jackson jury foreman Paul Rodriquez where she did little to hide her disgust and disbelief at the not guilty verdict garnered its fair share of criticism from the media but was a ratings winner. Last year, after her now-infamous grilling of Melinda Duckett, the mother of the two-year-old missing Florida toddler who killed herself after the interview, Grace wound up having to defend herself to other reporters for her prosecutorial approach -- which she did without apology. Duckett's family has since brought a wrongful death suit against her.

Grace, who was characterized earlier this week in the New York Times as the "former Georgia prosecutor with the chain-gang-and-magnolia Southern drawl," has remained resolutely undaunted.

"If I listened to all my critics, I'd be at home hiding under the bed right now," she says.

Name: Nancy Ann Grace ("I was named after 'Nurse Nancy.' My mother let my brother and sister -- who were three and six at the time -- name me.")
Birthdate: October 23, 1959
Hometown: Macon, Georgia
Education: Mercer Law School, LLM in constitutional and criminal law from New York University
Marital status: Single
Position: Host, Nancy Grace on CNN Headline News and Nancy Grace: Closing Arguments on Court TV
Resumé: Before joining Court TV, Grace worked in the Atlanta Fulton County District Attorney's Office for a decade as a special prosecutor compiling a record of nearly 100 felony convictions at trial. (Some were later overturned on appeal.) She was also a litigation instructor at Georgia State University School of Law and a business law instructor at GSU's School of Business. Grace clerked with a federal court judge and practiced antitrust and consumer protection law with the Federal Trade Commission. She began her television career when in 1997 on a "handshake deal" with Court TV founder Steve Brill to co-host a show with Johnnie Cochran, fresh off the O.J.Simpson trial. She sparred with the legendary defense attorney on virtually every point of every case they covered. "It took me a solid year to accept that Cochran was not the one responsible for the double murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. I was vicious no matter what the issue, still harboring intense disillusionment over the Simpson verdict and Simpson himself."
Favorite television show: "It would have to be a tie between The Office, Sopranos, and Monk -- and I can't possibly leave out Dexter."
First section of the Sunday Times: "I read the Post first."
Last book read: Thirteen Moons
Guilty Pleasure: "I'm torn between other people's Godiva and Jon Stewart."
Upcoming: On May 23 Grace will host Snatched: Protecting Your Kids. The show will premiere at 8:00 p.m. with encores at 10:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. ET. Grace will interview parents of missing children and examine what these parents can teach other families about keeping their kids safe.

What do you think of Amy Poehler's impersonations of you on Saturday Night Live? Have you ever spoken to her? I haven't spoken to her, but I was totally flattered. It was a big day in my life when I made it into their Prince segment. I actually scared Prince. I'm a huge Prince fan so that was a big moment for me.

You've also been parodied on the soap Passions with a character named Grace Nancier and someone else played a character based on you on Boston Legal. What gives?
I understand I got hit in the head with a shovel (on Boston Legal) but then I appeared on TV with a huge bandage on my head -- like a vampire. I'm flattered.

How would you say you've got to where you are?
[Long pause]. Hmmm. I would say one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. I always remind myself when I'm tired and going to my second job that it beats digging ditches. That kind of keeps me going. [Laughs].

Your schedule is going to be freed up a lot more now that you've just announced you're leaving Court TV after 10 years. Why did you decide to do that now?
I'm actually going on 11. It'll be 10 and a half years. My last day will be sometime this summer. I've worked two jobs since I was 15. I really want to focus on Headline News. I could never go into court not being totally prepared. I love research, I love the law, I love stories, and both are full time jobs. The evening show takes a lot more preparation because at Court TV, I'm reacting to the rulings and what's happening in court. Headline News takes much, much more preparation.

There are a lot of changes going on at Court TV. They're taking things in a new direction by focusing on more reality-based shows and even rebranding the network. Was that a factor in deciding to leave?
There is a new direction at Court TV. I don't know what it will ultimately be, but they are taking a new direction. This was a logical spot because it's the end of my contract. I was in a three-year contract with a one-year option to renew. That comes up this summer and working the two jobs since 2005 has been very, very difficult.

Does your leaving have anything to do with Star Jones coming on board?
We just worked together doing a Law & Order SVU episode for eight straight hours. [Grace and Jones will appear on the show's season finale on May 22]. I got to hang out with her and her husband. We had a great, great day. I had a really good time. We play ourselves. When they first asked me, I thought, 'Good God, I'm not an actress. I will be terrible.' Then they told me I'm playing myself so I said, 'Okay.' I had a wonderful time being with her. I think she's going to be perfect for Court TV. I know people would love to stir something up, but I've been in this contract for three years and the option really ends this summer.

Any truth to the other interesting rumor out there that you might be joining The View?
I'm very, very flattered that someone would even think that, but I have a job already and I'm under contract with Headline News.

So they haven't approached you?
I'm ... just ... No. We are not in any talks.

Would you do it if they asked you?
I'm under contract, so that's not even a possibility.

Did Court TV try to keep you?
They were very, very kind. We all would have liked to have continued on, but it's too difficult doing two full-time jobs for four straight years. It's been really difficult.

"So far I don't think anything has turned out horribly."

What's your day like getting ready for Headline News?
We start preparing for the show at 7:30 in the morning -- looking at what happened in legal stories overnight and what's happening that morning, what the morning shows are focusing on. Throughout the day it changes. It can change as late as six o'clock. The other night we changed the show at 7:30 p.m. It was very difficult, but breaking news came in. At about quarter to five, I found out about a case where [people] had been keeping a 10-year-old boy in a two-by-two dog cage for a Jack Russell terrier and putting an electric choke collar on him. When I heard that it broke my heart. I thought -- we must, we must, we must, lead with that. These people must go to jail. The whole kit and caboodle.

Will there be changes in your Headline News show now that you'll have more time to devote to it?
We don't know yet, but I think there will be changes in the show.

With Court TV ending and CNN having headquarters in Atlanta near your family, are you planning to stay in New York?
Luckily, [CNN Worldwide President Jim] Walton was kind enough to find space for a mini studio in Atlanta so when Court TV ends, I'll be getting to spend more time shooting down there. My staff and my show is in New York, but I will get to shoot more often down there, and I am so happy about it. I'm really, really happy about that.

You got pounded in the press after Melinda Duckett, the mother of the two-year-old missing Florida toddler, committed suicide last September after you interviewed her for your show. Would you have done anything differently looking back at the situation now?
[Pause] I think that when someone dies violently people always look for someone to blame. I know myself that it's easier on you -- on your heart, on your emotions, on your psyche -- to try to blame somebody. Especially in the Melinda Duckett case where she committed suicide. The family doesn't want to blame her, someone they love -- so I'm a very easy target. Miss Duckett had done numerous interviews and was asked the same questions shortly before she committed suicide. The FBI was en route to the house to see her when she committed suicide. As far as being accused of grilling her, questions like, "Where were you?" and "Why won't you take a polygraph?" and "Where did you go that day?" -- I don't think those are hardball questions.

What about CNN Headline News' decision to air the interview after her death?
I can easily say if we had chosen not to air it, we would have been pilloried even harder under the allegation we were trying to hide something. Those were the two choices, and I opted for the truth. Whatever you do in this world, if you take any position, you're going to be attacked. Period. So, what do you do? Just not have an opinion? That's not what I've chosen to do.

Can you comment on the lawsuit pending against you by Duckett's family?
I can't comment, but I have great faith justice will win out.

Why do you think other talking heads and journalists come after you so often?
You'd really have to ask them, but obviously they enjoy it immensely.

What the biggest story out there right now in your universe?
A girl in New York -- Chanel Petra-Nixon -- was murdered and disposed of on the side of the street in a trash bag and nobody saw anything. Nobody knows anything. From my analysis of the facts, it happened in her apartment building or right around it. It has gotten very little coverage, and I don't understand that, but it is the case that's really in my heart and mind right now.

Why are shows like yours giving Paris Hilton's 45-day jail sentence so much airtime?
Because I've prosecuted so many DUI vehicular homicides, and this is how they all start. They all start with a DUI that gets ignored, then something else happens and something else and something else and then somebody is dead. You look back at their rap sheet and there's 20 entries on there and you think, 'Why did somebody ever do anything?' Well, Judge Sauer did something. Compare her to the guy on that home makeover show [Extreme Makeover Home Edition's Ty Pennington]. He said "I did it, I endangered other people, I'm embarrassed, and I'm ashamed. I'm going to do whatever it takes to set this straight." People that I care for have gotten DUI. It happens. It's how you deal with it -- what you do with your life after that. Do you go to AA? Do you make a positive change instead of whining and blaming everybody else around you? It's ridiculous. I also think in our society to those that have great privilege, there are duties. A lot is expected of you. [Paris] has been greatly blessed with money, position and fame. What you do with that is the story.

So what's going to happen with her sentence?
I think she's going to go to jail. She's going to serve a greatly reduced sentence strictly because of jail crowding, not because of her fame. Of a 45 day sentence, at most she'll do half of it and that's doubtful.

Is 45 days commensurate with what most people in that situation would get?
Pretty much. Except most people get hauled away that minute on a probation revocation. I've heard people ask the judge, "Can I have two weeks to get my affairs in order?" Sometime they'll say yes, but on a probation rev, it's not your first time. You've already violated a privilege the court has given you. He did that for her, and they're still complaining. The judge can't catch a break with this bunch. I'll tell you what, Kathy Hilton better be glad she wasn't in jail for Mother's Day. Heckling the judge? I'm surprised he didn't take her away that very minute -- which she certainly deserved.

What the most overexposed celebrity and the law story at the moment?
(Laughs). That's a toughie. I'd probably say Paris Hilton and Alec Baldwin.

What did you think of Baldwin's blow-up?
He clearly took his anger that he has with his wife -- obviously, they're the ones with the history -- out on his daughter. I think that happens a lot, and it's never pretty.

Do you think he should be penalized for his actions?
I don't think he should lose visitation. Obviously, the problem is not with him and his daughter, but with him and his wife. It just boiled over.

What about the allegation that Kim Basinger leaked the tape? What about her role in this whole thing?
Everybody jumped on Kim Basinger for leaking it. The problem is the phone call, not that it was leaked. I thought that was a strange twist. After he reams his daughter out, everybody blames her. I thought that was totally inappropriate, but it is what it is.

What's the best thing you've done on the air for Headline News?
The best thing is where we've actually gotten results in a couple of cases where we publicized missing people and tips are called in as a result of the show. That is the most highly gratifying thing. We'll always be looking for missing children and missing people, and help publicize that.

And the worst thing?
So far I don't think anything has turned out horribly -- knock on wood.

What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
You know what? [Laughs] I learned a long time ago in the aftermath of  [my fiance] Keith's murder that when you have a long range plan, somewhere there's an angel just laughing because it's no going to be the way you think. Luckily, for me, it's been more wonderful than I could have ever imagined. It really has been. But it's never gonna be the way that you think. [Laughs] My plan is to keep my nose in the wind and my eyes on the horizon and try to stay in the saddle. That's my long-range plan.

[Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to Fishbowl NY and writes the Lunch at Michael's column. She also co-authored Objection!, a New York Times bestseller, with Grace.]

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