Sixteen years ago, during the Simpson trial, I used to walk past Camp O.J. on my way to lunch. The dove-sellers-in-the-temple were hawking bumper stickers, banners, flags, and t-shirts — many, many t-shirts. I distinctly remember one of them: it had the word "sidebars" in a circle with a line through it. The vendor grokked a key complaint of viewers — they hated it when questioning stopped and Judge Ito entertained some legal argument away from the microphones. That one word and symbol neatly encapsulated the dominant mindset of the audience at the Simpson circus: that the function of a trial is to entertain, and that anything that is not cinematic is objectionable.
Nothing's changed. Turn on one of the cable networks, or click the #CaseyAnthony hashtag on Twitter, and you'll see that the circus is back in town.
If the wall-to-wall coverage were calculated to educate citizens about how the criminal justice system works, warts and all — or if the public fascination reflected a concern with rights and procedures, rather than reality-show drama — then this could be a good thing. But it's not — it's not even close. Television and radio coverage are choked with inanity, rank speculation, dumbed-down generalizations, and sound-bite-spewing legal-generalist "experts." The result is a relentless promotion of disinformation and ignorance, and very little useful education about constitutional and statutory rights or trial practice. That's the natural and probable consequence of a media culture that profits from wall-to-wall coverage when the circus is in town. They've got to fill up all those hours with something. They've got to make mundane developments sound earth-shattering and routine courtroom maneuvers sound devious, outrageous, or brilliant. They've got to make it sound like their talking heads have unique insights that viewers can't get on any other channel — which requires them to generate hours of useless and misleading speculation. Want to know what's going to happen next, or what the judge or jury are thinking, or what the defense strategy is? You'd be better off looking for the answers by rooting around in the entrails of a sheep than listening to the average cable-channel "expert."
If the media is acting badly, their audience is worse. If you can stomach it, check out the #CaseyAnthony Twitter feed. It has all the charm of a depraved and demi-literate crowd hooting at a hanging. Today, when court was abruptly adjourned, the criminal-justice-is-here-to-entertain-me attitude was paramount:
@ashleebella: "#Caseyanthony trial is infuriating me right now -Thankyou! Im so mad 2. Why are they putting this pretty girl through this?"
@5tephertiti: "Relieved #caseyanthony trial didn't happen today so I wouldn't miss anything. I never want it to end."
@dnllmchll: "Part of the reason I'm excited to have the next 3 days off of work is the #caseyanthony trial… Shits so crazy."
@robrff: "If I've watched all this #CaseyAnthony trial and a plea deal or mis-trial is called, and there is no jury verdict, I'm not going to be happy"
@RAWss23: "Must b something big today in the #caseyanthony trial…court is in recess allday no explanation, now wat am I supossed to watch? :("
(Not to mention the deep legal insight:)
@bluejean24: "Why doesnt Caylee have a lawyer to protect her interests #caseyanthony" "Are you as pissed off as I am that they did not hold court today? #CaseyAnthony/ YES!"
@scout35: "Check out this video… a dog's reaction to #CaseyAnthony!"
What I'm saying may sound like a you-kids-get-off-my-lawn old-man rant, but it's not merely a rant about entertainment culture — it's also the impact of that culture on the criminal justice system that protects citizens from their government. The trial-as-circus ethos has any number of regrettable effects:
1. Promotion of ignorance: The circus culture encourages the media to offer sound-bite-based, exciting, controversial, and "interesting" explanations for complex issues. Those explanations are rarely complete, accurate, or fair. The media therefore promotes ignorance about the criminal justice system — the mechanism by which some of our most important rights are determined.
2. Promotion of Unquestioned Government Power: The circus culture naturally seeks swift, exciting, simple resolution — like the bad guy being caught, conclusively proved guilty, and punished in the 42 minutes of a TV drama. The media coverage encourages that attitude — and therefore encourages citizens to be impatient of anything that's not cinematic and angry at anything that seems to interfere with a 42-minute resolution. But "swift and cinematic" favors unquestioning acceptance of government claims, not careful testing of the sufficiency of government evidence, and certainly not respect for rights or the rule of law. The trial-as-circus culture promoted by the media for its own financial benefit is all about promoting the age-old "tough on crime" mindset that constitutional and statutory rights are merely devices by which sleazy defense lawyers evade justice.
3. Promotion of Misconduct: The trial-as-circus atmosphere, with its attendant big money, brings the nuts, the con artists, and the crooks out of the woodwork. Crazy people show up claiming to be witnesses. Minor witnesses exaggerate or change what they saw in pursuit of their fifteen minutes and a book deal. Lawyers abandon their ethical duties in pursuit of a quick buck.
One of the state's most formidable powers is its ability to imprison or even kill a citizen by accusing that citizen of a crime. Sometimes the state gets it right, and imprisons people who did what they are accused of doing. Other times the state relies on bad evidence or panic about kids, and gets it wrong. How do we know which is which? We have to respect the rule of law and rely upon competent professionals — including vigorous and capable defense attorneys — to apply it. By promoting trial-as-circus, the media and the madding crowd are undermining the rule of law. They're doing it for money and attention (in the case of the media) and entertainment (in the case of the crowd). They ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Free Speech Triumphant Or Free Speech In Retreat? - June 21st, 2017
- The Power To Generate Crimes Rather Than Merely Investigate Them - June 19th, 2017
- Free Speech, The Goose, And The Gander - June 17th, 2017
- Free Speech Tropes In The LA Times - June 8th, 2017
- I write letters - June 1st, 2017