No Courtroom Camera, No Trial Buzz?

Although I have witnessed the difference courtroom-camera coverage can have in media reports of trials and, in fact, I wrote about that in my 1997 Court Manager article “What A Difference A Lens Makes”, and even though I support cameras in courtrooms, I take exception to the assertions in this National Public Radio report that aired yesterday.

Lack Of Video Kills Media Buzz At Whitey Bulger Trial

In this broadcast, NPR reporter Tovia Smith says:

“It all raises that age-old question, if a blockbuster trial happens in court and no cameras are around to broadcast it, can it really be a blockbuster trial? Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson says not really.”

Then Charles Nesson says:

“It makes it literally invisible, not a public trial.”

I beg to differ.

Who, including NPR’s Tovia Smith and Harvard’s Charles Nesson, can possibly argue — at least with a straight face — that the 2005 Michael Jackson child molestation trial in Santa Maria, California, wasn’t a “block buster” or that it was “literally invisible”? No cameras in the courtroom for that case.

I know, not only because I could not watch any of the court proceedings on television, but because I consulted on that case and discussed with the judge his thinking on whether or not to allow cameras in.

And how about the 2004 Martha Stewart insider trading trial? No cameras there. Yet every aspect of the courtroom proceedings was aired by the legions of reporters covering it?

Don’t you think the media would have covered every inch the so-called 9/11 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui’s 2002 trial, had he not pled guilty before the case went to trial? Cameras would not have been in that courtroom either, since it was a federal case in a federal courthouse and, except for couple of limited experiments with civil cases, federal court system does not permit camera coverage.

And what about the 1996-7 O.J. Simpson civil trial in which Simpson was sued for wrongful death by the families of murder victims, Simpson ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman? The judge presiding over that trial vehemently denied camera access to his Santa Monica courtroom, yet the media no only covered the actual trial (but maybe not the accompanying circus outside) nearly as closely as they did the 1995 criminal trial, the Santa Monica police issued riot gear and marshaled its mounted units to keep the raucous crowd outside under control.

Most people I poll in presentations I do on high-profile trials think the trial of Scott Peterson, convicted in 2004 of killing his pregnant wife Laci on Christmas Eve of 2002, was televised. It wasn’t.

A number of lawyers and even judges who previously were anti-camera, subsequently have reversed their thinking.

One notable lawyer is Peterson’s defense attorney Mark Geragos, who firmly believes his client is not guilty.

Geragos said at a 2005 conference, which I quote in my book Anatomy of a Trial, “I think we should have had camera coverage to get the facts out there for people to form opinions for themselves. The venom the public expressed about Scott Peterson was based on urban legends. It was not based on the evidence presented at trial.”

I think I agree more with the comments posted at the end of the NPR story that with the premise of the story itself. Here’s a particularly cogent one posted by Sam Hedrick:

“The longer I listened to this story, the madder I got. It’s a bunch of reporters whining because they can’t take video cameras into the courtroom and are missing out on some “great television”. These are not journalists,they’re talking heads. News isn’t supposed to be about making entertainment, it’s about conveying information. Without that, it’s just more worthless crap. This is a trial about a man’s life- maybe a life wasted, but nonetheless this is about justice, not TV.”


2 responses to “No Courtroom Camera, No Trial Buzz?

  1. I think cameras should be in all courtrooms. Particularly, our clandestine Supreme Court!

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