All week, Charles Jaco, CNN's man on the scene at the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, had the look of someone who drew the short straw in the office assignment lottery.
"And while [disc jockey] Giles Pattinger is describing the kind of music played at Au Bar, we'll take a break for these messages," Jaco said in the dispirited tone of a man on a forced shopping trip to the mall with his wife.
Standing outside the courthouse in West Palm Beach, waiting to announce commercial breaks or interview CNN legal experts, Jaco had plenty of time to think back on the days when he became a household word across America.
It seems like a lifetime, but it was only 10 months ago that he was intrepid war correspondent Charles Jaco, in a smart khaki bush jacket, glancing over his shoulder for incoming Scuds and fumbling with his gas mask as air-raid sirens whined.
Bush and Hussein . . . life and death . . . a clash of great armies in the cradle of civilization that could determine the shape of events for generations to come. Yes, those were the days.
And now? Now he lolled in the Florida sunshine watching lawyers on the TV monitor ask about "erectile insufficiency," the difficulty of removing pantyhose in a car, and the precise duties of a valet ("I open the passenger door, then I go around and open the driver's door . . .").
The expression on Jaco's face often seemed to be saying, "Where's that gas mask now that I really need it?"
On the day the alleged victim took the stand, a reader without CNN called me to ask why the networks weren't providing live coverage of the trial. After all, she said, it's a "landmark case."
A landmark case usually sets legal precedent and influences future cases like it. There's nothing to indicate the trial in West Palm Beach is different from the hundreds of other rape trials that take place every year in this country. With one obvious difference.
The Kennedy name has given this trial -- 10 percent of it anyway -- high entertainment value. Portions of testimony from the now-you-see-her-now-you-don't accuser were riveting stuff indeed. (I wouldn't want to go hunting with the guy aiming that blue spot.)
The remaining 90 percent has been grindingly boring courtroom rigmarole, the attorneys reading long stretches of testimony back into the record and pursuing lines of questioning that elicit 20 straight yes or no answers.
The case does represent a dubious landmark for CNN, which apparently was sucked in by the tabloid buzz: This is the first time it has suspended normal news programming to cover what is basically theater -- very bad theater for the most part.
The subtlest critique of CNN's decision to give the trial the same continuous coverage it gave Desert Storm and the Clarence Thomas hearings was provided by CNN itself, in the news "updates" that ran across the bottom of the screen during the trial.
Signaled by a "beep-beep-beep," the updates ended up serving as devastating reality checks that undermined the "Breaking News" logo that CNN used to introduce the trial coverage every day.
Attorney: Do you remember what you ordered that night?
Alleged victim: Yes. Rigatoni and a Caesar salad. They make a really good Caesar salad at that restaurant.
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Disc jockey: Yes.
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