Blinking twice about allowing cameras in court

April 05, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

My old friend Jim Morton, known in his WFBR Radio days as Commander Jim, used to tell the story about freezing with fear in front of a television camera. He did this for charity. Not the freezing with fear part, just the television appearance. But one seemed to follow the other quite naturally.

He was asked to appear on one of the local TV stations, where they'd set up rows of telephones, manned by various celebrities, so people could call the station and pledge donations.

Slight problem: Jim's telephone never rang. He looked around, and all the panelists were on their lines, taking pledges, talking to callers, writing down names and dollar amounts, while the unblinking TV camera took it all in.

So Jim did the only thing a person could do in such a situation: He picked up his telephone and proceeded to talk to an imaginary caller, and to scribble down imaginary notes on his pad.

He had no choice: The camera was watching him, and he didn't want to look stupid. So he did what he felt was expected of him in that situation, with that damned camera watching.

And now, in case anyone wishes to notice, the cameras want to watch again. This time, in a place where they've never watched before, a place from which the battle has been waged for a decade now to keep them out: Maryland's criminal courtrooms.

More than a decade ago, the Court of Appeals OK'd such a move, but the state legislature decreed otherwise. Cameras don't belong in courts, the legislature said. Cameras could taint the legal process. This isn't show biz, it's the law. The legislature was, for that moment, wise beyond anyone's previous imagining.

But now it wants to rethink the matter. Tomorrow in Annapolis, a House Judiciary Committee hearing is scheduled, to talk once more about cameras photographing criminal trials. If all goes the way it has now gone in 41 other states, we'll soon have coming to a television station near you: Real-life courtroom drama! Wise judges! Wily attorneys! Sniveling criminals!

And, not to be overlooked, we may also have people freezing in front of the cameras like Jim Morton, acting out for the camera, letting its presence affect their behavior and judgment. Of course, this is just a theory. People who have studied this closely say otherwise.

Studies by the Federal Judicial Center, for example, indicate judges and attorneys have no problems with cameras in courtrooms. No, indeed. And it's nice to hear that these selfless, publicity-shy attorneys are willing to let themselves be seen by thousands of viewers on the evening news each night.

Here's an admission: Maybe I'm old-fashioned. I always thought TV cameras had the power to affect people's behavior, whether it's loonies at the ballpark stripping to their skivvies in subzero weather or panelists sitting nervously at a charity event or otherwise sane souls who might find themselves on a criminal court jury and wonder:

a) "If that camera turns in my direction, does my hair look all right?" -- while some bit of complex testimony is being given; or,

b) "If we find this mug guilty, and the camera has shown my face, do this guy's buddies come looking for me?"

But maybe I'm old-fashioned. Maybe, as the experts tell us, people no longer think about TV cameras, particularly when they're hidden. Maybe we've grown so accustomed to electronic invasions -- the closed-circuit cameras in the department stores, in elevators, the workplace -- that we don't feel self-conscious in front of them any more.

And maybe the same people who decry the encroaching tabloid approach to TV but somehow assume this approach won't reach into courtroom coverage are actually right. Maybe we can live with it. Maybe it really will educate the public about our legal system, if they can observe deeply insightful 20-second clips on the nightly news.

By the way, there's a kicker to that Jim Morton story. There he was, on this celebrity panel, reaching for the phone to talk to his imaginary caller, scribbling nonsensical notes, all because he found himself on camera and wanted to look like he knew what he was doing.

When the show ended, he told other panelists what he'd done. He expected everybody to hoot at his TV nervousness. Instead, he found they'd all been doing the same thing.

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