WASHINGTON -- With all the trash on television, it's hard not to applaud any effort by a serious program like PBS' Frontline to educate the viewing public about the American system's most vital functions, including the sacrosanct constitutional right of trial by jury.
But the show is enduring slings and arrows after obtaining approval from the mother of Cedric Harrison, 17, accused of murder in Texas, to put its cameras in the jury room where his fate will be decided, including the possibility of a death sentence if he is found guilty.
The plan has just been sanctioned by District Judge Ted Poe in Houston, who has been quoted as saying such action will help shed light on a process that is "shrouded in mystery." Prosecutors in the case, however, are appealing the ruling.
Cameras have long been admitted to many courtrooms for the viewing of trials on the reasonable rationale that since the public most of the time is readily admitted to the limit of the courtroom's capacity, the use of television is no more than an extension of that practice.
At least as far back as July 1925, when WGN of Chicago broadcast live from the courtroom of the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial" in Dayton, Tenn., radio has been permitted in some jurisdictions. And there have been a few cases of cameras in jury rooms in Arizona and Wisconsin -- but never, as far as is known, in a case in which the jury is deliberating on the life or death of a defendant.
The prosecutors and other critics are raising such questions as the likely effect on the jurors sitting in judgment of the accused. In the current assembling of the jury panel, 14 of the first 110 individuals examined for jury duty have been excused because they objected to having cameras in the jury room.
Even if those selected have not registered a complaint, some critics argue that the potential is present for intimidation of jurors wary of having their views aired during the deliberations and for showboating by individual jurors -- a phenomenon not unknown in the presence of TV cameras.
Mike Sullivan, executive producer of Frontline, says such speculation is no more than that. In the few cases when jury deliberations have been taped for television, he says, jurors have said they have not been intimidated or otherwise affected. And he emphasizes that in seeking to put an unmanned camera in this jury room, the purpose is indeed educational, with no intent to set a precedent that would open jury rooms as a matter of course.
One catalyst for this effort, he says, is the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling this year that defendants in capital punishment cases must receive jury trials. This fact makes it more important, Mr. Sullivan argues, that the public be educated about what goes on in jury rooms.
The airing of the jury deliberations, though intended as education, doubtless will be viewed by many as entertainment. Although Frontline has an admirable record as a public educator, much of television these days does fail to draw a distinct line between education and entertainment. The use of "docu-dramas," wherein history is presented in altered or distorted form, is now commonplace, making it difficult for audiences, and especially the young, to separate fact from fiction.
At the same time, television increasingly twists reality into entertainment, as in the various exploitative shows playing on a public thirst for the kinky or bizarre. But Mr. Sullivan says: "We are not a reality survivor show, we are a serious news documentary show."
You have to wonder, nevertheless, why Judge Poe sees the process of jury deliberations and decision as "shrouded in mystery." For one thing, jurors often come out of the jury room and report at great length what was said and done there. Also, numerous books have been written about famous trials
And then there is the movie classic Twelve Angry Men, which, though fictionalized, provides a vividly credible presentation of what goes on inside a jury room. It is, however, the product of "one man's mind," Mr. Sullivan says, and he wants to show the real thing, while being aware of the sensitivity of the effort.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.