Now, Court TV has filed suit to be allowed to televise the terrorism trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. O.J.! O.J.! Zacarias?
(The Trials of Television)

Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? Of course you do. It was televised, complete with instant replay, overnight reruns, court handicappers and commentary, some distinguished, most dreadful. When the action slowed, you got analyses of Judge Lance Ito’s bench tchotchkes, bios of the bailiffs, route maps of the chauffeurs and the menu of Mezzaluna. Marcia Clark’s hairdos, Johnny Cochran’s shirts, learned explication on footwear, handwear and cutlery and those ever-so-riveting discussions of DNA all provided memorable moments. We were especially fond of the outside-the-courtroom insights into Brentwood real estate prices.

The O.J. trial was very L.A., just as the televised trial of William Kennedy Smith was very Palm Beach (after which superlawyer Roy Black married a juror).

Now, Court TV has filed suit to be allowed to televise the terrorism trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. That’s cool with Moussaoui, although he may not understand that he won’t get a free make-up artist or wardrobe by Joseph Abboud. Court TV has had to file suit because federal court rules prohibit televising federal trials. All those you have loved watching have been in state courts where the rules are a bit more parochial.

The federal rule is unconstitutional, says Court TV, a violation of the First Amendment. Besides that, it’s too old, imposed in 1946 by the Judicial Conference.

Yeah! Right on, say some of the other tv folks. Bring in the cameras, and we’ll have ourselves some right-to-know justice for the populace. Some cheap programming. Increased sales for microwave popcorn. (Turn it on now, Ethel. They’re going to put on that cute FBI agent, and Paula Zahn, ziiiip girl of CNN, says she heard from a confidential source he was going to wear Prada.)

Nobody loves the First Amendment more than we do. Nobody (who doesn’t make money from it) loves tv more than we do. It is absolutely true that the Founders did not contemplate television, cell phones, the internet or digital recording. But as fogeyish as such thoughts may label us, we like to think that they wouldn’t if they could have.

Our federal courts do serious business, and there is no more serious business before this country than trying alleged terrorists. Our federal courts provide for the media and the public. The constitutional right to know is served. Perhaps the convenience to know is not, but that isn’t in the constitution, and we have grown quite weary of those who want to stretch the constitution beyond recognition.

There are legitimate security concerns, at the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui and others that will follow it. There are numerous other legitimate concerns as well. One of the most tantalizing discoveries of quantum mechanics is that the simple act of watching something can change it. Television changes that which is before its cameras, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically. As McLuhan said, the medium is the message, and he knew whereof he spoke. Nothing should change the dignity, efficacy and delivery of justice–to all accused, for all victims, by a country that requires transparency, not spectacle.


[Posted January 11, 2002]


Update:

January 24, 2002
"Due To Legal Difficulties Beyond Our Control…"

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema–assigned to preside over the trial of alleged terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui–has declined the selfless offer of Court TV to turn her courtroom into daytime television entertainment.

"…we find that the Court has no discretion to disregard the present ban on the photographing and broadcasting of federal criminal proceedings. We also find this ban does not violate the constitutional rights of either the public or the broadcast media. Moreover, even if the mandatory ban were declared unconstitutional, given the issues raised in the indictment, any societal benefits from photographing and broadcasting these proceedings are heavily outweighed by the significant dangers world wide broadcasting of this trial would pose to the orderly and secure administration of justice."

That’s what the judge wrote, in part. To read the complete decision click here.

We concur. The constitution and justice are well-served by the judge’s decision, and it will not deprive the public of television entertainment. That will just be in the form of a sidewalk sideshow instead of three-ring circus.

 

January 11, 2002
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