Tasteless ads trivialize coverage of Lewis trial

May 30, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE MIDST of Court TV's coverage of the Ray Lewis murder trial last week, the station broke for a word from their sponsors. "Perry Mason classics," an announcer declared. "Five murders in one incredible Memorial Day Weekend marathon!" Heaven forbid we should go a few days without our quota of entertaining killings.

Then, interrupting live coverage a little while later, there was a commercial for "Homicide." Scenes from the famous Baltimore TV show in which art imitates life were interspersed with shots of holiday barbecues in which life imitated a party. An announcer said, "On `Homicide,' they're grilling suspects." "Grilling," get it? It's a holiday, get in the spirit. Then the barbecue fire roared. "The Homicide guys are turning up the heat," said the announcer. Get it? It's party time!

The Ray Lewis murder trial is brought to us by murder. Somebody's gotta pay the bills. Even a city like Baltimore, with 300 murders a year, can't get enough of this stuff. The courts take a holiday weekend break, so Court TV has to do something to fill all those empty hours during real-life murder coverage. What better way than more murder, which is not only part of our national pathology but a vital cog in the commercial marketplace.

This stuff is killing me. On Court TV, there's an obvious concern to keep the action moving. The station is competing, after all, with other TV stations, and those of us with our 90-second attention spans are notoriously quick on the remote control trigger -- especially if those other stations might be showing real blood.

But not to worry. During appropriate moments, when the courtroom action slows a little or needs a little visual assistance, Court TV shows background tape: the ambulance lights blinking, the cops arriving, the blood on the limousine seat the night of the killings of those two Atlanta men whose names slip our minds because they weren't professional athletes.

Heaven forbid, we should get bored and not stick with Court TV -- not because we might miss crucial testimony, but because we might miss the commercials that sponsor that testimony.

Like the commercials for psychic readings. "She knew," a young woman says of her TV psychic. "She knew." (Who is this "she?" If Ray Lewis had talked to this psychic "she" character ahead of time, maybe he could have stayed home the night he got into trouble.) Or the commercials for car insurance or Ziploc bags, all arriving in the course of testimony about knives and limousines and death.

Heaven forbid America should miss an opportunity to sell itself something.

In fact, there's every kind of commercial but one: for the Cobalt Lounge, the Atlanta-area nightspot where Ray Lewis and his two friends did or did not plunge knives into these two men they'd never seen before the night of the Super Bowl stabbings.

In that sense, the commercials help make the trial coverage feel like any other kind of television programming. But there's more. You thought politicians were the only ones who had perfected "spin"?

Last week, Lewis' limo driver, Duane Fassett, testified that after the incident, Lewis told him, "Don't say nothing." Minutes later, during a slow moment in the proceedings, there was Lewis' agent, Roosevelt Barnes, sitting in a television studio with analyst Fred Graham.

Lewis wasn't implying a cover-up by the remark, Barnes explained. He only wanted to remind Fassett of his constitutional rights as a citizen. He shouldn't talk without an attorney representing him, which is the right of all Americans.

Then, getting to the heart of everyone's deepest concerns in this double killings, Barnes added, "[Lewis] should be able to go back and play football right away."

Lest anyone think Lewis is now a sure thing to beat the charges, though, there was more deep analysis. Graham and a few other talking heads said Lewis' body language was bad.

"He leans back, as though aloof, as though these proceedings didn't concern him," said one analyst.

"And he keeps squeezing that tennis ball," said another.

As they said this, a Court TV graphic was displayed on one side of the screen: "13th Juror," it was called. It said, "Should NFL Suspend Lewis During Trial?"

Yes, said 64 percent of the respondents. No, said 36 percent.

This was interesting, except -- what did it mean? This is May, when the NFL does not play. From what does this alleged 64 percent of the public believe Lewis should be suspended? Weightlifting? Jogging around the practice field?

Court TV is so eager to fill the long hours, to keep us from flipping that dial, that it is sometimes guilty of, shall we say, overkill.

When we used to talk about the possibility of cameras in courtrooms, the big worry was that cameras would influence the process, that attorneys would strut like Shakespearean actors and jurors would worry how they looked instead of what was being said. But it's different now. The real concern is that the stuff of real-life murder looks like just any other television show. If we flip the dial, maybe they'll both just go away.

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