Friday, August 17, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: The media circus

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
August 17, 2012

Drew Peterson is the media trial du jour. Peterson, a former police officer, is on trial in Illinois for the murder of this third wife. His fourth wife also disappeared.

The trial is not being televised but cable television is abuzz. The Chicago Tribune recently bemoaned Peterson’s attorneys for “over” accessibility. Peterson’s attorneys “typically will stop for the assembled camera crews and field questions each day on their way” in, out and during the lunch break.

A reporter complaining about accessibility in the midst of a media circus is like a lion trainer complaining about his lion’s ferocious roar.

The media circus is not new. In 1921, silent film star Fatty Arbuckle went through three high profile trials before he was acquitted of murder. In 1925, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan squared off in Tennessee for the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial drew intense national publicity as reporters flocked to the small town of Dayton.

The media circus was thrust into the public consciousness in the prescient movie “Dog Day Afternoon.” The 1975 movie depicted two inept bank robbers who get trapped in the bank by the police as a crowd outside, and viewers at home, watched things spin out of control.

O.J. Simpson’s nine month trial in 1995 may have set the media circus standard. The “trial of the century” riveted a national audience with memorable quips like, “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Simpson was acquitted. The attorneys on both sides became media personalities. The reporters covering the trial became celebrities.

Last year, Casey Anthony ratcheted-up the media circus. People waiting in line to get into court each day had as much interest in seeing their favorite TV news stars -- touching them, shaking their hands and taking photos with them -- as they did in the actual trial.

Judge Belvin Perry exiled the TV personalities—Nancy Grace, Geraldo Rivera, Greta Van Susteren— to the courtroom’s balcony to control distractions. Still the judge admonished the media for “creating a circus like atmosphere around the trial.”,,20513241,00.html

Pennsylvania just finished a sensational trial with a high profile defendant. The trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky generated an enormous amount of attention.

Although the satellite trucks were planted on the PSU lawn and were outside the Centre County Court House, the Simpson-Anthony-Petersonesque media circus was absent, why?

Unlike Florida and California, TV cameras are not permitted in Pennsylvania courtrooms. Judge John Cleland prohibited live emails, texts and tweets from the courtroom during trial. A gag order prohibited lawyers from talking with the media.

Most importantly Sandusky’s trial had no suspense. His guilt was a foregone conclusion. He went to trial, not because he had a defense, but because he had no other options.

The prosecution didn’t offer a plea, the case was too strong. An open plea would probably have resulted in a life sentence due to Sandusky’s age. Sandusky rolled the dice at trial because he had no other option. That is not the stuff of enduring notoriety.

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