Friday, October 19

Order in the court


Order in the court

Court TV has brought the current O.J. Simpson murder trial, with
all its drama, suspense and grandeur, into every home in America.
Has the line between entertainment and news been crossed?

By Gaby Mora

Daily Bruin Staff

As Court TV begins its fourth year on the air, instead of
announcing the achievements the network has made, spokesperson and
supervising producer Cynthia Glozier went before pool reporters
Jan. 24 to apologize for an incident which resulted in the latest
media uproar in the "People vs. O.J. Simpson" case.

The network, which runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week,
covering trials, live and taped, has been placed in charge of
controlling the courtroom camera in the widely publicized trial.
But after a shot of an alternate juror aired, Judge Lance Ito
adjourned court and threatened to pull the plug. The juror’s face
appeared for less than a second and, though inadvertent, the
incident went against rules granting jurors’ anonymity.

Court TV anchor Jan Rostal, a former public defender, called the
incident an unfortunate mistake, but says "we paid for it, and
frankly I was happy to be a part of an organization that owned up
to it." Ito accepted Court TV’s apology, and allowed televised
coverage to continue ­ under stricter rules and a static
camera to ensure a juror would not be caught on tape again.

John Wiley understands Ito’s concern for a juror’s right to
privacy. The UCLA law professor and former federal prosecutor
describes the impact of the camera on jury duty as complicated.

"Televising jurors puts a face on them, and that has the
potential for making jury duty much more of an intrusion than civic
duty used to present," he says.

But just as the controversy over cameras in the courtroom didn’t
start with the O.J. Simpson trial, it doesn’t end in the Los
Angeles Criminal Court building either.

United States courts have always been open to the public and to
the media. "Courtrooms are public places whether lawyers and judges
want them to be or not," says Karen Nikos, a former trial reporter
now working for the UCLA law school. "All the camera is is an eye
into that public place."

In 1977 the state of Florida began an experiment with TV
cameras, and since then 47 states now permit TV coverage of state
trials. Federal courts still do not allow cameras, though on July
1, 1991, coincidentally the same day Court TV was launched, a
landmark test of cameras began for several federal civil
trials.

The law governs that the use of cameras within a state’s courts
are made by that state, which is why in some states the jury can be
shown, while in California they may not. The one consistent rule is
that the video and audio equipment must be as unobtrusive as
possible.

But though the camera is not supposed to interfere with trial
proceedings, the impact of the media on the O.J. Simpson trial is
undeniable, prompting veteran Associated Press reporter Linda
Deutsch to describe the case as being tried in two courts, "the
court of justice and the court of public opinion."

Cynics of the 24-hour court room cable channel didn’t think the
public would be interested. But despite a recent Associated Press
poll that reported the majority of the public believes O.J. Simpson
is probably guilty and doesn’t care about the trial anymore, the
ratings boost Court TV and CNN received during the preliminary
statements demonstrated that cameras in the courtroom not only
grasp the public’s attention, but also a profit.

"It’s just a mystifying trial," says Rostal, "and it’s one of
things people don’t want to admit, but once they turn the
television on they just can’t turn it off."

The 100 or so worldwide news stations enrolled in the so-called
"Camp O.J." outside the Criminal Courts building are further proof
of the interest in high profile trials. Every day the trial is
turned into more of an unbelievable Hollywood drama than a judicial
process that will determine the fate of one man.

But if the fate of cameras in the courtroom is to be a positive
one, now is a monumental time for Court TV to establish its place
as an educational, and not just entertaining, cable network. Having
covered over 300 trials, Court TV brings this county’s legal system
into the living rooms of its 15.2 million subscribers in 49 states,
Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The cable channel claims to choose trials with a few determining
factors in mind: importance and interest, notoriety and
newsworthiness of both the case and the people involved, the
quality of the story, educational value, and expected duration of
the trial. Usually one or two cases are covered live in a day with
a taped case or two ready to be televised.

"There exists a deep controversy of what the purpose of cameras
in the court room is, especially with the view that TV is strictly
entertainment," says Wiley. "But that’s also an elitist view,
because it doesn’t give people credit for being able to choose what
they want to see."

"We just try and keep within the trial itself, keeping our
coverage realistic," says Rostal. "We try not to add things, or
take anything away. If a certain witness is important, we let our
viewers know, and even if it is boring, we still emphasize its
importance."

But because the camera inevitably covers people in a trial both
inside and out of the courtroom, the effect of trial publicity also
impacts trial participants as well as the public.

"One thing, certainly," says Wiley, "is that people always act
differently in front of the camera. Its not necessarily good or
bad, just complex. In some ways (TV) serves as an on-line civics
lesson, and it also restrains otherwise arbitrary judges who think
they have ultimate power; one can contrast the extremely judicious
on camera."

Nikos says that in her years covering federal and state courts
she never found a difference in televised and nontelevised trials,
as long as the judge was controlling. And while the line of a
controlling or passive judge can be arbitrary, the role of the
lawyers is becoming increasingly visible in the realm of public
opinion.

"The willingness of lawyers to speak to the media is a factor,"
says Wiley. "California is a state with a laxness of ethical
regulations … (defense attorney) Robert Shapiro is a good
example, he wrote an article called ‘Using the Media to Your
Advantage,’ not your client’s, but yours."

Nikos agrees. "In the past, very rarely did you quote lawyers
because you knew that they were just pontificating. But there are
just no rules anymore, and almost all of the rules that do exist
have been broken. Because when lawyers don’t follow rules of
ethics, neither do the reporters, who are already in feverish
competition."

Rostal says Court TV curbs itself from becoming a pulpit for
media hungry lawyers. Even though the cable channel has featured
guests such as defense attorney F. Lee Bailey (before he
represented Simpson), Rostal says the purpose is to, "have lawyers
as commentators, not to dissect other lawyers’ performance but to
explain what’s going on."

Nikos praises Court TV for explaining court proceedings to the
public. "As a starting reporter," she says, "I relied on editors
and peers to help me understand what was going on. Court can be
very confusing, and its very formal, almost like church where the
judge is a priest like figure. Having the different people’s
functions and the procedures explained is very helpful."

"Watchers of Court TV," concludes Wiley, "have a more real idea
of what lawyers and trials are like, than the people who watch
‘L.A. Law’ or ‘Perry Mason.’"

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