Let TV Go to the Circus

The public wants and deserves to see Jacko's trial

California is among 47 states that allow trials to be televised. Yet no TV camera is allowed in the courtroom as Michael Jackson faces child molestation charges in coastal Santa Maria.

The reason? Presiding Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville doesn't want Jackson's trial—hold your laughter—to become the circus of the century.

No courtroom camera, no Big Top? Puh-leeeeeze!

As the trial gets under way, it is time to debate again the question of allowing cameras in the courtrooms, a crossroads of the 1st and 6th Amendments, where some believe freedom of expression and the public's right to know collide with a citizen's right to a fair and speedy trial.

This is a valid concern. Yet the Jackson trial should be televised because, simply put, there is wide public interest and no compelling argument against it. There is, however, a big argument in favor of it: public enlightenment.

A camera isn't needed in Jackson's courtroom, one might argue, given that E! Entertainment and Rupert Murdoch's British satellite service BSkyB will provide their own trial accounts by having actors read testimony from the previous day's transcript, just as E! did during O.J. Simpson's civil trial. But although the words will be accurate, missing will be the tone of the testimony and overall courtroom ambience. It is still phony.

As Court TV affirms, telecasts of actual criminal trials have the potential to smarten viewers about a process few of them will ever encounter in person. So the Jackson trial won't be typical? So it will be salacious? So what! It will be what it is.

Rarely do TV cameras inside courtrooms harm high-profile trials. This is true despite the camera's bad rap at O.J. Simpson's criminal trial. Judge Lance Ito lost control of that courtroom, but the cameras were blamed for the chaos. The result was a lingering backlash, causing judges to be more camera-wary in recent years.

These judges need to be reminded that it was outside the O.J. courtroom that media kazoos tooted off-key and TV-ready lawyers scored the trial like a sporting event. And the sawdust is hitting the fan once again just outside the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. This is Ringlingville, where the jugglers, trapeze artists and floppy-shoed, fright-wigged, bulb-nosed clowns of media are gathered.

Only a handful of press members are actually inside the 160-seat courtroom. Yet more than 1,000 have signed on for Michael Madness in a coastal town that surely has more homely strip malls per square foot than any other community in California. To say nothing, these days, of satellite dishes, portable toilets for media and newly erected platforms for anchors.

Beside the courthouse is a narrow corridor marked off for 17 satellite trucks. And behind a six-foot security fence are spaces allotted to more than 50 TV crews from as far away as France and Japan, another chain-link barrier separating them from expected throngs of screaming Jackson groupies.

How curious that directly behind the courts complex sits a quaint anomaly known as the Santa Maria Lawn Bowling Club. On a recent sunny morning, elderly bowlers strode across the green in slow motion compared with the frenzied buzz of media abutting them, with sound-bite–desperate reporters pouncing on locals when not quizzing each other.

“I was interviewed by this feller from Norway,” said a creaky oldster named Skip. “Or was it Australia?” Not that it matters. A circus is a circus in any language.

There is a long history of media misbehavior at sensational trials, at least as far back as the manic newsreels and brutalizing print headlines surrounding Bruno Hauptmann's 1935 conviction for the murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant son.

Consequently, cameras remain banned from federal criminal trials, and only rarely are federal civil actions televised. The cameras-in-courtrooms paranoia is fed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which stubbornly refuses to allow its hearings to be televised, denying the public an opportunity to witness the nation's highest legal body at work. What are these robed sages hiding?

Opponents of cameras in courtrooms insist they inhibit participants or transform others—witnesses, lawyers, judges and even juries—into actors performing for the lens.

No credible evidence supports the claim that those inside the courtroom either turn off or on in response to the camera. And since when, in fact, do trial attorneys require a camera to encourage them to vamp? Don't they always do that to impress juries?

Foes of cameras in courtrooms also note that even responsible newscasts air the most titillating sound bites from televised trials, distorting coverage.

But that charge is as applicable to print reporters who haven't space to regurgitate entire trial transcripts and instead risk taking testimony out of context when deciding what to include and omit.

No one advocates barring print reporters from courtrooms. Why discriminate against TV?


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