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Time of the Court Jesters - Broadcasting & Cable

Time of the Court Jesters

Too many of TV's legal “experts” don't know their habeas from their corpus
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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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