Camera's eye on blind justice Simpson trial spells trouble for cause of TV coverage in court

October 01, 1995|By Lyle Denniston

WASHINGTON -- In the "jury" of public opinion, a split verdict is coming in on television coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial: It was the worst thing, but paradoxically it also may have been the best thing, that ever happened to the cause of putting cameras in the courtroom.

As the Simpson murder trial moved toward a close, Americans who had seemed to be infatuated with the TV images beamed out of a Los Angeles courtroom were not convinced that their nation -- or their criminal justice system -- was the better for the experience.

It is one of the curious things about the nation's 60-year debate over filming the courts that cameras won't be welcomed routinely until the case is made that their presence will actually improve the quality of justice.

No other observer of a trial has had to prove that in order to gain admission.

At this point, with the Simpson trial fresh in America's visual memory, television's cause may have been hurt enormously by repeated broadcast scenes from a highly visible event that was maddeningly comic as often as it was serious and dignified.

Even if the issue of Mr. Simpson's guilt or innocence should someday fade in the nation's moral consciousness, the debate over television's effects on justice will go on and the Simpson trial will remain Exhibit A in that debate.

Not least among the deeply serious questions to be faced is this: Did Judge Lance A. Ito's courtroom become a theater for the absurd because the cameras were there -- or was that really Judge Ito's fault, or the fault of the lawyers?

A subsidiary question: Would this have happened anywhere but in the environs of Hollywood?

Even at the end, absurdity was still evident. Indeed, it was difficult for the TV viewer to suppress a giggle when prosecutor Marcia Clark, facing the cameras and the jury Tuesday, remarked with a completely straight face: "It is up to you, the jury, to weed out the distractions, weed out the sideshows."

And there was Judge Ito, putting on his I-am-upset mask again, pulling the plug on the cameras because what they depicted displeased him -- and then changing his mind to let the show go on.

If the Simpson trial had become a thespian's paradise, it was because of moments like those.

Memorable shenanigans

The jury, perhaps, did have the capacity to "weed out the sideshows" but it may be a long time before the viewing public will forget the shenanigans in which every trial participant -- from Judge Ito on -- had indulged themselves while the cameras rolled.

This, then, was the bad news for those who promote televised trials. There always has been a visceral character to the opposition to TV in the courts, often manifested by an inarticulate fear about what cameras would do to the very idea of justice.

Now, those opponents have the Simpson trial to put forth as a universally familiar case study that, supposedly, proves their point.

The trial, in short, has spelled trouble for those who favor cameras in the court. Steven Brill, the founder and chief executive officer of Court TV, the cable network devoted to court coverage, remarked at a recent news conference here:

"We knew there was going to be a time when one very high-profile trial would go badly and end up -- for all the wrong reasons -- reigniting the debate about cameras in the courts. Obviously, we have that trial [the Simpson case]."

Many in the legal community, he concedes, now have turned against cameras in the court -- blaming the electronic messenger, not the message.

David Bartlett, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, a group that long has promoted broadcast coverage of trials, said in a recent interview: "We definitely fear a backlash. We are very fearful that the O. J. Simpson case will provide a pretext for opponents of camera coverage, arguing against it and rolling back some of the progress."

The complaints that are being heard from the critics now are exactly the same that opponents of televised trials have made for years -- indeed, throughout the 40 years that the cameras-in-court controversy has focused on television cameras instead of the still-photo cameras that got the debate started 60 years ago during the Lindbergh kidnapping trial in 1935.

One judge taking part in a recent federal survey on the subject summed up the grievances this way: "The basic purpose of the courts is to render justice. The basic purpose of TV is to entertain. There are many detriments to TV courtrooms and no corresponding benefits to the judiciary. Courts should not compete with soap operas, at least not in the name of promoting justice."

The attitude is not peculiar to judges and to lawyers. Don Hewitt, executive producer of CBS-TV's investigative program, "60 Minutes," said in a New York Times column last summer: "Letting cameras in can turn a courtroom into a movie set. An occasional door closed in our face would be good for our souls. "

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