Dahmer case comes to cable's Court TV

January 28, 1992|By Rick Kogan | Rick Kogan,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- The phone rang, and when I picked it up, a man said, "How do I get cable TV?" This happens all the time. I told him whom to call, then I asked, as I do all the time, why he wanted cable.

"Dahmer, man, Dahmer," he said. "I want to see him get what's coming to him. I want to see him hang."

He won't see Dahmer hanged, but he will see him tried for the murders in Milwaukee. Beginning this week and lasting for who can say how long, the Jeffrey Dahmer trial will be available to 6 million of the nation's cable TV homes.

Gavel-to-gavel coverage courtesy of the Courtroom Television Network, better known as Court TV, has the potential to give viewers a program unlike any they have seen before (the cable service is not available in the Baltimore area, however).

Jury selection began yesterday in Milwaukee. There will be lawyers, jurors, a judge and other courtroom personnel; a passel of reporters; sad-eyed or angry relatives of victims; and maybe even a hungry producer or two, seeking rights to transform events into a made-for-TV drama.

In the back of the courtroom, relatively inconspicuous, will be a small video camera recording every moment of the proceedings.

The Dahmer trial, following so quickly on the heels of the William Kennedy Smith trial in Florida, and concerning blood-chilling matters, has rekindled the controversy over having cameras in the courtrooms and, in this case, bringing the unspeakable into our living rooms.

Even the President has felt compelled to comment. "I must tell you I'm worried about it," George Bush told a San Francisco television reporter in December, in reaction to a question about the Smith trial. "I'm worriedabout so much filth and indecent material coming in through the airwaves and through these trials into people's homes."

Bush went on to say, "I think the American people have a right to be protected against some of these excesses. While people have a right to a fair trial, I think the American people have an overriding right to let those matters be decided behind closed doors."

Unwilling to argue this point with a President obviously more troubled now by economic issues, I will say that his worries are unfounded. No one has to watch the Court TV channel.

But for whatever grisly images or words it feeds us, Court TV is the most important network to come along since CNN more than a decade ago; given the sorry economics of the cable industry, it may be the last major network to premiere for some time.

In a world where fluff, fantasy and mangled reality are the principal commodities, Court TV trades in facts.

It first went on the air July 1, the brainchild of Steven Brill, a writer and editor who is president and chief executive officer of American Lawyer Media, which operates 11 weekly and daily legal newspapers in the U.S. Mr. Brill's partners in Court TV are Time Warner, NBC, Cablevision and Liberty Media Corp.

Premature controversies -- whether people would "play" to the camera, for instance -- were silenced by the network's straightforward manner, savvy commentators and commitment to journalism.

Court TV's timing was perfect. Cameras of any kind had been banned from courtrooms since the trial in 1935 of Lindbergh "babynapper" Bruno Hauptmann created a circus-like atmosphere. In 1977, Florida became the first state to introduce TV coverage of trials, and now more than 40 states allow cameras to cover some or all trial proceedings.

In its first six months, Court TV quietly built its credibility.

Then Willie Smith took the stand in West Palm Beach and began describing, in graphic detail, what transpired the night he met Patricia Bowman at Au Bar.

Even as people watched and listened, they began to question whether this was what they wanted to see and hear.

And now, here's Dahmer, who has pleaded guilty but insane to 15 murders.

"We originally weren't sure we were going to carry any of it, until it was became clear that it was an insanity defense case," Mr. Brill said in a speech less than two weeks ago before the National Cable Forum in California. "And that is the really fascinating issue. The issue in a nutshell is, if what you do is so gruesome and so horrible, does that mean you should get off because therefore it's insane?

"In other words, if I murder you in a conventional way, I'm going to go to prison. But if I do it with some creativity, I can say I'm insane. Now that it's an insanity hearing . . . we are going to cover it gavel-to-gavel."

Surely there will be viewers drawn to watch the Dahmer trial for such sober reasons. But many, loath as they may be to admit it, will watch precisely because they expect to encounter things "so gruesome and so horrible."

They may get some of that, though Mr. Brill promises that his network "is probably not going to show the worst" of whatever medical examiner photos are introduced as evidence.

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