Out of the frothy, weird sea of people typing stuff into Twitter, hardly anyone makes me laugh as often as, or genuinely shocks me more than, Nancy Grace. Thousands upon thousands of wannabe writers and comedians attempt to subvert Twitter’s format and play with surreal connections and black humor, but I doubt anyone has ever topped “I want answers #BoxOfInfants”—a tweet that, like “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” is a brilliant and complete short story told in the space of a single sentence.
Nancy Grace, for the uninitiated, is a former prosecutor who hosts her self-titled show on HLN, where she becomes furious at the evils that men do four times a week and stops just short of calling for the public execution of criminals. Like any vigilante, she's got a backstory tinged with tragedy: She dreamed of becoming an English teacher until her college fiancé, Keith, was gunned down in front of a convenience store. From that moment on, she pledged that she would devote herself to fighting evil. “I would go to law school, become a prosecutor, and put people in jail who hurt victims like Keith,” she wrote of her life-changing epiphany.
She was really, really good at putting people in jail—she once told Larry King she never lost a case—though she was also later cited for pretty serious ethics violations. She went to television armed with that same zeal for watching people get thrown behind bars and the same disregard for any code of professional conduct.
Grace has attracted an audience by being perpetually outraged at a never-ending stream of nightmarish injustices, but she also essentially assumes everyone accused of a crime is guilty. Even worse, from a journalistic point of view, she occasionally says things that aren’t true, which is why she’s currently being sued for libel. She's also unafraid of dropping all pretext of objectivity in favor of a burn-the-witch passion for seeing someone punished. In 2006, she all but accused Melinda Duckett of murdering her missing son, and Duckett killed herself days later—Grace still aired the interview even after her death. (Duckett's family sued Grace over the incident, and the host settled out of court.)
All that said, if you want to relax after work with a bottle of wine and hear breaking news about trials of alleged child abusers, pedophiles, and wife-killers delivered in the breathless, can-you-believe-it-and-I-haven’t-told-you-the-worst-part-yet tone of an unhinged neighborhood gossip, well, crack open some fucking Chablis and stare into Grace’s unblinking eyes for an hour starting at 8 PM Monday through Thursday. As far as cable news programs go, it could be worse.
On Twitter, though, where Grace’s tweets are disconnected from the context of her show and left to swim in the stream of other, less murder-focused items, they stand out as nuggets of pure insanity:
“It reads like Dr. Seuss meets the Zodiac Killer” is how Jeb Lund describes her feed. “I'm not sure if people necessarily even like it; it's just fascinating.” Jeb, who goes by @Mobute on Twitter, is a longtime @NancyGraceHLN devotee who retweets her regularly and used to photoshop Grace’s head onto dunking basketball players' bodies, which should tell you something about what people on the internet think of the HLN host.
I imagine that a lot of the Twitter account's "fans" are like Jeb in that they view @NancyGraceHLN like they view the sensationalized crimes on Nancy Grace, the show—so strange and abhorrent you can't look away.
If you don’t consider the actual dead children and burned-alive mothers who form the basis for Grace’s material, her Twitter is laugh-out-loud funny in a pitch-black way. A hashtag like #MurderForPizza jerks the laughter out of you involuntarily, like Anthony Jeselnik's best lines.
It's preferable to look at @NancyGraceHLN as a joke, or more specifically the feed of a Twitter comedian who tells gruesome stories in the character of a ghoulish, paranoid, hashtag-spouting newscaster. If you can't do that—and she is talking about actual people who really were tortured or killed or kidnapped, after all—you can try viewing the account as an expression of some grotesque id lurking under the internet's collective consciousness. It suggests a world where all we want to know about is the depraved, inhuman acts our neighbors could be performing at this very second. We know that this vision of the world as a place of constant, unspeakable cruelty is insane, but we recognize it just enough to laugh at it.
That detached way of looking at the things she tweets runs counter to the spirit they were written in, however. "There's no irony there," Jeb wrote to me in an email. "I've been reading her off and on for three years, and you never catch a wink sneaking through."
It's Nancy Grace herself who's behind the Twitter account's temperament, naturally—that kind of self-serious nuttery can't be faked. A spokesman for the Nancy Grace show (who said the host was unavailable for comment) told me, “Nancy is definitely the driving force behind all her social media accounts and is deliberate in creating content and hashtags that spark conversations for justice.”
By any metric, Grace is adept at using Twitter; she's amassed more than 400,000 followers and practically forces people to talk about her and her show. A 2012 piece on Slacktory praised Grace's Twitter strategy, saying, “The rigorous use of hashtags and pull quotes for every story, the way that social media editorial format is followed strictly with no variations, is an astounding feat in a world where most news organizations are still struggling to identify basic best practices in the social media landscape.” It also said that the account “paints a picture of Nancy Grace as a screaming schizophrenic lunatic,” but that's the price you pay for creating viral content.
Meanwhile, her actual fans—the ones who don't think she's a broken person who parades evil in front of a camera but is occasionally so deranged it's funny—no doubt appreciate her efforts to draw attention to the evil crimes being pepetrated throughout the country.
“Young and hip people like to think that they're the only ones on the internet—that their crazy aunt only sends email forwards about NOBAMA and doesn't have a social media presence. And that's wrong,” Jeb told me. “There are definitely people out there—like, the mom part of the internet—who engage her on this totally sincere level. They thank her and think she's making a difference and that, by retweeting and speaking out, they can too. These are the sorts of people who get an Amber Alert text on their iPhone and immediately look around them to see if they can see the person/car/abductee.”
You can, of course, critique Nancy Grace the Twitter feed on the same grounds as Nancy Grace the TV show or Nancy Grace the person. Her insistence that she's "speaking for the victim" or whatnot is undercut by the fact that the victim is often a dead baby who was thrown in a convenience-store trash can. A lot of times, all she's doing is trying to send someone, anyone, to jail.
Sometimes the cases she talks about are famous, but more often than not she's only showing us them because they're profoundly fucked up. Arguably, we don't really need an entire show devoted to telling us that cutting your kids to pieces and throwing the remains in a Walmart bargain bin is wrong. A cynic might go further and suggest that HLN broadcasts Nancy Grace because it's a freakshow of horrific crimes that the network knows a bunch of people will watch in spite of themselves—having Grace as a voice of hectoring morality just makes the program more palatable to the older ladies who will inevitably tune in.
A significant portion of Nancy Grace's Twitter audience exists in a state of knowing cynicism, where a hashtag like #FetusSnatcher could never accompany a serious sentiment. When they're retweeting her for shock value or the bizarrely funny quality of her stuff, they don't care that she's in deadly earnest about everything she does. And I doubt that Grace particularly cares that some of her tweets go viral because people think they're the product of a disturbed mind—in a world full of child diddlers and murderers hiding next door, every little bit of fearmongering helps.
"If you start with the assumption that Nancy Grace views herself as this moral crusader at the ramparts of civilization, holding back barbarism with the force of her outrage, then everything makes sense," said Jeb. "The hashtags that we laugh at aren't creepily exploitive: They're what happens when a person in media realizes that short, pithy rhyming nicknames for events have a 'stickiness' in readers' minds and help to virally propagate this critical message about law and justice. When Nancy Grace writes '#RatBiteFever,' I'm certain she thinks that she's only helping, and I hope she never stops."