Time of the Court Jesters
Too many of TV's legal “experts” don't know their habeas from their corpus
By Rikki Klieman -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/10/2005 8:00:00 PM
Before O.J., Martha, Michael Jackson or Robert Blake, there was a concept of bringing the trials of important legal cases to the eyes and ears of the public. Court TV, which was founded in 1991, was the first national carrier that showed gavel-to-gavel coverage of court cases “in the public interest.”
We anchors were taught that our role was to provide balanced coverage, using traditional rules of journalism, where one talked of “on the one hand, on the other hand.” Lawyers appeared as guests on both sides of the case so a full and fair airing of the issues could take place.
The commentators were the most well-known and well-respected attorneys in the system. While they were supposed to have a point of view, if the audience knew what side of the issue the anchor stood on, you weren't considered to be doing your job well.
Today, each media outlet now defines balance in its own fashion. On Court TV, if the anchor has a bias, it is disclosed—and the chosen guests and reporters are there to create that balance. My booking producer works diligently with me to find analysts who are real trial lawyers who would be at the top of anyone's list if they needed legal representation.
E! News' coverage of the Michael Jackson trial (where I also appear) imparts balance by re-creating the trial from actual courtroom transcripts and providing discussion by an objective host as well as by three continuing commentators who express views on both sides. While the concept of re-enactments is new in this context, my colleagues and I are some of the most experienced trial lawyers in the country who have participated in complex cases attracting extraordinary public attention. We have truly been in the eye of the hurricane.
In recent years, the degradation of the role of the legal analyst has occurred primarily on cable franchises and radio, with some participation by broadcast networks. For every well-prepared and experienced legal expert who is worthy of respect, there are others who have never tried a case of local, let alone national, significance. These seekers of their 15 minutes of fame claim to have a law practice and clients, which they apparently rarely visit since they are able to spend weeks, if not months, at courthouses observing trials, with or without compensation. They learn that, if they hang around long enough, look good enough and flatter the right field producers and bookers, they can find themselves on television as the “courtroom observer” who then morphs into the role of legal commentator or analyst. They think it is a reality program and more airtime makes them the winner.
They have created a new cottage industry: lawyer as carpetbagger, who books himself or herself on-air simply by being there.
With the additional pressure to fill the airwaves, producers are not really checking out their credentials. A look at the background of some of these commentators may not locate any peers who would call them “experts,” but if they stick that label on their lapel, they suddenly become who they say they are. They are rewarded for strong opinions, not balance. They are booked because of proximity, not professionalism. And there is rarely a nod to or even a basic understanding of journalistic concepts.
Some of their counterparts who are not at the courthouse go from station to station spouting words of wisdom by reviewing a three- paragraph wire story. They have not bothered to peruse a transcript at all but feel free to opine because they are television personalities masquerading as experienced trial attorneys. Even some of those who have admirable credentials have stopped doing their homework since they know that their glib commentary carries the day.
I have enormous respect for the legal profession. It is a serious world where lives and liberty are at stake. Attorneys who appear in the media have a major responsibility: They are forming public opinion.
Unfortunately, the quest for exposure alone has some attorneys forgetting why they went to law school in the first place. They unabashedly state that they want to be seen on television so they can flee their law practice and be the next anchor or talk-show host.
A student of mine at Columbia University Law School said to me, “When I graduate, I want to do what you do.” My response: “Practice 20 years and try over 100 jury trials. Then you can do what I do.” How ironic that her perception appears to have been correct: Just smile those pearly whites and finance your trip to Redwood City or Santa Maria, and someone may make you a star without your having to pay your dues.
A trial is a living, breathing thing; it changes every day. The changes may be subtle and nuanced. Experienced trial attorneys who deserve the title of legal analyst need time to evaluate and explain the proceedings in a way that helps the public understand the issues and the law involved. A screaming soundbite from a ranting court watcher surely does not serve the public interest. In the end, it is not good journalism—or good law.
Klieman, a former prosecutor and criminal attorney, is a legal analyst/anchor on Court TV, E! Entertainment and NBC.
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