Court TV Seeks to Broadcast Moussaoui Trial.
December 26, 2001 10:55 PM   Subscribe

Court TV Seeks to Broadcast Moussaoui Trial. The Senate has passed a bill allowing for the closed circuit televising (similar to that used in the case against McVeigh and Nichols) of the trial in this case to a number of locations for victims of the crimes associated with the terrorist acts of September 11th, who have an interest in attending, but can not do so because of inconvenience and expense. Federal rules prohibit TV cameras in the courtroom, but Court TV argues that the prohibition is unconstitutional. Television coverage has come a long way from the first case involving the impact of radio and television broadcasting before the U.S. Supreme Court, which resulted in an overturned conviction. Should cameras be allowed in the courtroom, and if they are, will they shape the outcome of the trial?
posted by bragadocchio (14 comments total)
The courtroom isn't a chapel - well, not in the literal sense anyway.

But, cameras complicate everything. Even the closed-circuit compromise poses questions. Logo laden TV cameras in the courtroom imply a massive presence that the participants usually pander to. There will undoubtedly be a 'good' lawyer and a 'bad' lawyer. The 'good' lawyer will draw wide and simplistic caricatures (for the viewing audience and potential wealthy clients), trumpet the ad hoc American spirit (which s/he has humbly agreed to serve), and make dramatic gestures with a flair that can only be called 'patriotic' (after light prompting from the 'good' lawyer's freshly hired publicist). The 'bad' lawyer will maintain a stony face throughout, expecting that the wise (and still massive) viewing audience will read his stoicism as dedication to the law and due process. They will both write books afterward. Moussaoui will be the subject of numerous viewer polls. Is he insane? Did his terrible youth drive him to his horrible attempted actions? What do you think of his suit? Who is the baddest evillest person of all time - Hitler or Bin Laden? Is Moussaoui telling the truth? Do you know that you can get a pre-owned Lexus with no money down if you meet a minimum income requirement?

A televised courtroom will fulfill the obligations of television first and the courtroom second, to the detriment of due process. I'm sure someone remembers O.J. Simpson. The courtroom participants will, whether knowingly or unwittingly, comply with the demands of the medium. It has to be entertaining and easy to understand. It must have emotional content and 'connect' with the viewing demographic. The demographic will watch it as television first and a court case second. Everyone will behave according to how they would like to appear on television. And everyone will run home, boot up the TiVo, and watch themselves on TV. A weepy grandmother will be embarrassed to death when Court TV airs a Depends undergarments commercial after their interview with her (and her grandchildren will later sue Court TV for libel). The friends, families, and minor acquaintances of the victims will all get to watch themselves profess their feeling of 'closure' after the guilty verdict drops. The lawyers will get to see themselves being lawyers in front of the whole world, including themselves. Then we can all watch ourselves while watching what other people see when they watch us watching ourselves. Smiles all around, it's for the good of the country.

Even apart from the conflict between due process and advertising revenue, I have a vague feeling I can't quite explain - there is something very wrong with all of this. It's like sitting in the chapel and realizing that the preacher is masturbating under the lectern during his impassioned sermon.
posted by generic human at 12:12 AM on December 27, 2001

I don't think disallowing cameras in the courtroom violates any constitutional right to freedom of the press or freedom of speach. I mean, really, wouldn't that be violating the right to privacy of the defendant? Or don't those people deserve that right. I don't think that cameras, even the closed-circuit tv, should be allowed in the court. I like to think that if it was so important to me, I would spare nothing to see the trial. I guess it all depends on what is important to you...
posted by Scottli at 1:18 AM on December 27, 2001

I have a very un-vague feeling that the trial should be televised. There is a jury and a judge. We all have at least a basic idea about their job. The jury is already not supposed to follow news coverage of the case. And ignoring the television should be well within the capabilities of a (federal) judge. Bring the TVs in. Personally I think television news is mostly shit, but that's where lots of people get their news, so who am I to argue with them? And if I was really interested in a case, I think a network like Court TV that shows lots of original footage could be a nice resourse.

What's wrong with the OJ trial? I seem to recall a jury. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) He's allowed to present any defense he wants (within broad limits.) If the defense was truly un-legal and inappropriate then the judge is really the only person who can remedy that.

What conceivable conflict between due process and advertising revenue? This isn't the NBA, there aren't any television timeouts. I really don't see what the demands the medium is going to place on the participants. If I have a choice of a defense attorney and I'm facing death I'm going to choose based on their ability to defend me in the real courtroom and not the court of public opinion. Others are free to make their own choices. And hell, a prosecutor can't do much for their image if they lose the case.

The (normally hidden) best arguments against televisions must come down to some affect they have on the jury. And that sort of secondary and minor impact is no reason to ban cameras. Because that is utterly a failing of the jury and why not ban all press coverage? Is it a matter of degree? Is it because the people who get to decide these things are way smarter than the average American and think (like me ... no claim of way smartness implied) that television news doesn't contribute much to our democracy?
posted by Wood at 2:17 AM on December 27, 2001

I have lived through the circus that was the televised O.J. Simpson trial once. I care not to do that again.

Why not just broadcast the audio after the fact like with the Supreme Court?
posted by carobe at 4:49 AM on December 27, 2001

"If the turban doesn't fit, you must acquit!"

Johnny Cochranesque lawyer appeals to the jury on behalf of terrorist defendant in a cartoon recently seen in TIME mag.
posted by IXOYE at 5:04 AM on December 27, 2001

"If the turban doesn't fit, you must acquit!"


Man, did I need that this morning.

Thank you IXOYE.
posted by a3matrix at 6:22 AM on December 27, 2001

Sorry.You must have cookies enabled to enjoy this site.

Sorry, no thanks. I especially liked how they use a javascript redirect to send me to this "error" page after the original real page had fully loaded.
posted by fleener at 6:26 AM on December 27, 2001

fleener, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer hit me with a couple of requests to accept cookies, but didn't divert me to an error page when I refused them. Here's a link to their coverage of this story.

The New York Daily News has a story from the end of last week about the closed circuit aspect of the case, estimates of the number of victims (from tens of thousands to possibly millions), and some guesses regarding where the broadcasts might be shown - Madison Square Garden as one example.
posted by bragadocchio at 7:32 AM on December 27, 2001

bragadocchio, thanks for the link. What was especially ridiculous was that the "error" page referred me to their privacy policy, but I first have to permit them to invade my privacy by accepting cookies - just to read the policy. I just skip sites like that. I'll never buy Lego Mindstorms for the same reason. *sigh*

Cameras in the courtroom aren't so much about freedom of speech, but of ensuring an open government to prevent abuses, especially because of the current lynch-mob mentality America is experiencing. A free press is one recognized way to prevent abuse. It is "the fourth estate," or another "check and balance" for government. Cameras should be standard in every courtroom. If that were reality, the American public would be rather bored with 24-hour trial coverage on CNN and turn the channel. Thus, the news media would get a clue because it then affects their bottom line (advertising). The OJ trial began to stir those repulsed feelings, but people knew the coverage would end someday and the repulsion never came to its zenith.
posted by fleener at 8:25 AM on December 27, 2001

Moussaoui is going to be declared guilty, one way or the other. I don't think the cameras will affect the outcome of the trial because the outcome is a foregone conclusion. So, why the cameras? No one is going to get any news from watching the whole court episode that they couldn't get from a neat summary on CNN. Besides, those people who draw the little chalk pictures of court room scenes probably don't get a lot of work these days.

The difference between a small jury and a giant television audience is significant, and it's ridiculous to think that such a large distinction wouldn't have influence over the proceedings. The 'influence' would manifest itself in lawyers who decide to abandon the usual point-by-point refutation in favor of big stupid appeals to popular perception. As for the losing lawyer - the defense, obviously - any publicity is good publicity. One could argue that the big stupid appeals will be made anyway, but I think it's unlikely. No matter how seasoned the performer, the intensity of the performance will always be strongly influenced by the size of the audience. Maybe we'll get some greenhorn DA fresh out of law school who fumbles and spits because he realizes that the whole town of Snow Prairie ND (family, friends, the former high school cheerleading queen) is watching. Again, the result of the trial is already in the bag - so why bother with all this?

Lauding the objectivity of the judge and jury speaks of having too much faith in the (must be) infallible process of American law and the (must be) impregnable impartiality of human beings. Modern courtroom procedure, with its pre-TV format, doesn't have a safety net to provide for the possible complications introduced by LIVE(!) coverage.

My objection to LIVE(!) CourtTV coverage is generalized more than specific to this particular evil-terrorist-bad-guy-gonna-get-what-be-comin'-to-him-we-all-gonna-watch stuff.
I think the execution (or executing) of law deserves a bit more solemnity than the "America's Funniest Home Videos" medium will allow it. (This week: Cat knocks over Christmas tree! Moussaoui falls out of his chair after guilty verdict! Junior hits grandpa in testes with whiffle ball bat! [insert laugh track]). Maybe in the future trials will also take commerical breaks (Mr. Cochran will continue his argument after these messages from our sponsor). Moussaoui is going to be pronounced guilty anyway. (Maybe they'll allow cameras at his sentencing too - then we can really watch the goddamn commie bastard squirm, right after Full House is over. Oh those Olsen twins ain't they just the cutest.)

But, why take even the smallest risk with the specifics of this case for the sake of CourtTV's advertising revenue and some law careers and the desultory entertainment of thousands of couched viewers who will all know what happens anyway? Even if the presence of cameras presents only a secondary and minor impact, is the risk of a secondary and minor impact something that due process should take in order for the nonexistent benefits of televising the entire case? Shouldn't the fact that there could be any impact from television cameras be enough to forbid them altogether?
posted by generic human at 9:32 AM on December 27, 2001

Let cameras in - but don't allow broadcast of proceedings until after a judgement is reached. This keeps things open, but prevents the feedback loop that realtime media can create.

Openness of government is a good thing, but live TV in a courtroom is wrong. In addition to the feedback loop problems, live TV creates a peanut gallery, it does not create a larger courtroom.

Having a courtroom closed to TV requires that a citizen must expend personal time and energy to attend court. In this manner, the courtroom audience is a self-selected group of very interested people. Live TV inspires casual viewing, in which it is perfectly acceptable to go take a shit during a witnesses testimony. Courtroom attendance requires more civility and responsible behavior.

If you go to court every day for the duration of a trial, you're actually going to see and hear the entire trial, and will thereby be in a good position for having a reasoned opinion. If you catch the 5-minute highlights each night on TV, you'll still have an opinion, but it will not be well-informed, and you'll fail to realize the distinction.

In that manner, live TV broadcast of courtrooms does a disservice to the courts, and (though unintentional) makes it far too easy to get a mistaken impression of American justice.
posted by yesster at 10:07 AM on December 27, 2001

Besides, those people who draw the little chalk pictures of court room scenes probably don't get a lot of work these days.

generic human... They are some talented people. I came across a site on David Rose, who was the artist for a good number of high profile cases. It looks like he is making money these days selling off some of those paintings.

I was worried for court stenographers also, after seeing digital audio recording systems replacing them as the makers of the courtroom record, until I discovered that the need for people to caption television is increasing just as the need for court reporters is waning. Many of the reporters are making that transition.

I've seen court cases that attracted so much media attention that lotteries had to be held daily to decide which news agencies could have representatives present in the courtrooms. On big cases like those, courtroom behavior does undergo a transformation, regardless of whether or not cameras are present. Will cameras magnify the differences even more. Probably. Will that impact upon due process? It did in the Estes case . But, the actual use of cameras in a courtroom is less noticible to case participants now, then back when Estes was decided. Will an appeal court be able to pinpoint behavoir in a case that denied a defendant due process, regardless of the presence of a camera (or maybe because of it)? Probably (but do we want to run the risk of an overturned conviction?).

Do we run the risk of not finding an impartial panel of jurors if portions of the case are televised before trial? I think there is going to be enough publicity to run that risk without televising pre-trial matters. I don't think court TV hearings on pretrial scheduling, and other motions will impact juror selection any more than CNN, FOX, and other reports without live time video.

I agree that there is a serious potential problem in presenting the justice system as entertainment, and lessening its value immensely. If the trial is televised, aren't there things that can be done to retain the dignity of the courts, and the judcial system?

Fleener - that site does provide some valuable links to local news that are otherwise only available in print media. I wasn't aware of the problem with the privacy policy and cookies - but I'll be careful about trying to find other sources to post here, that are more concerned about people's privacy.. (thanks for letting me know - I've been a little too ready to accept cookies recently, without thinking too much about it.)
posted by bragadocchio at 10:34 AM on December 27, 2001

If televising the case would tell us why the government sat on this guy for a month while they let his hijacker buddies run around then I'm all for it. Without the media circus that info might slip by.
posted by euphorb at 11:26 AM on December 27, 2001

bragadocchio, I just have my browser reject cookies by default and I allow them only for sites that have a valid need for them (e.g., to provide me services instead of merely to track my activity). I do allow per-session cookies on all sites, and there's really no other type of cookie a site should need, unless I'm registering for something.
posted by fleener at 9:36 PM on December 27, 2001

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