December 7, 2021

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a troubling Netflix series on press coverage of the courtroom

If there’s one case that epitomizes the synonymity of courtroom drama with American television, it’s commonly accepted to be that of OJ Simpson, the celebrated black ex-football player whose acquittal in the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson, and her acquaintance Ron Goldman in 1995 became a months-long national obsession. It spawned its own universe of catch-phrases (“If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit!”) and reality stars (the Kardashians) but though grand in celebrity, it was hardly the first case in which court television built frenetic national interest. As the Netflix docuseries Trial by Media reveals, the history of American media’s embedment in the criminal justice system has a much deeper and dizzying history than one sensational, oft-cited case.

Related: The Innocence Files: a shocking Netflix series on wrongful convictions

Trial by Media, whose executive producers include George Clooney, Court TV creator Steven Brill and longtime CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin (whose book on the Simpson trial inspired Ryan Murphy’s 2016 Emmy-winning drama The People v OJ Simpson) is a deeply researched, bitingly edited sprawl of a series that favors identifying America’s tentacled media and criminal justice system over one pointed argument. It revisits six cases – some famous, others less so – in which the media played an outsized role. “We wanted a mix of cases that were famous and recognizable, and cases that were … just bizarre and fascinating on their own terms,” Toobin, a New Yorker staff writer, told the Guardian.

The series begins with one of the thorniest examples: the so-called “talkshow murder” in 1995, when a young man from Michigan, Jon Schmitz, shot and killed acquaintance Scott Amedure days after Amedure revealed his crush on Schmitz on an episode of the Jenny Jones Show, a “gotcha”-style daytime program which thrived on ginned-up conflict between guests with little regard for off-air consequences. (The episode featuring Schmitz and Amedure, queasy clips of which are played in the episode, never made it to air.) The episode introduces themes coursing throughout the series: the boon of sensational courtroom television, which broadcast the trial; the toll of attention on participants; the unreality of televised speculation twisting conflicting public sympathies in real time.

Still, “we didn’t want to make the series just about cameras in the courtroom,” said Toobin. “It’s really only part of the story. It’s really more about media manipulation from a broader perspective.” Said manipulation, and the mutual gravitation of media attention and public sympathy, are at the heart of the next two episodes: on Bernard Goetz, a white man who unrepentantly shot four black teenagers on the New York subway in 1984 but was misbranded the “subway vigilante” during an era of high muggings in the city; and on the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed west African immigrant who was shot at, in what became an incendiary headline, 41 times by New York police in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment. In both cases, the narratives unfolding outside the courtroom, founded in ruptured racial tensions, mismatched with evidence and the formalities of the trial within it. “I think in each of these stories, you see that the one-sentence media summary is almost invariably misleading if not outright wrong” compared with the trial, Toobin said.

Episode four concerns the financial crimes of Richard Scrushy, the ostentatiously wealthy former CEO of HealthSouth, an Alabama-based Fortune 500 company, who (publicly) reinvented himself into a white televangelist in Birmingham’s black church community – one filled with potential jurors – after he was charged with fraud in 2004. The episode serves as an understated thesis statement of sorts, in the Scrushy lawyers’ cynical understanding of trial as a game of storytelling; you have to know your audience.

Captivating a perpetual audience is, ultimately, the business strategy of cable news, the ethics of which are explored in the final two episodes: on the gang rape trial at Big Dan’s bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1984, which was broadcast in all its ghastly detail on a newly minted CNN (the defense’s strategy to smear the 21-year-old victim’s character on national television, and the many public comments that she “asked for it”, are an unsettling antecedent to the #MeToo movement). Finally, there’s the Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s frenzied corruption scandal in 2008, in which a press-hungry politician basically interviews his way into prison … and, now with a pardon from Donald Trump, back out.

Trial by Media can feel unsettlingly circular, in that it examines the entertainment demands placed on the legal system by media coverage by distilling them into six chapters structured, edited and paced for one’s entertainment on the world’s largest streaming platform. That’s not a criticism so much as recognition of one of the trickier feelings one gets from watching the series. Some of the media’s transgressions – the Jenny Jones segment in which a gay crush is presented as scandalous for a national audience, primetime interviews with Goetz, the total lack of concern for the privacy of the anonymous victim in the New Bedford rape trial – were clearly exploitative and abhorrent, condemnable now if not necessarily then. But so much of the media’s relationship with the justice system – the presentation of narrative to a captive audience – is bound up in the legal system’s, and humankind’s, instinct to use storytelling to make sense of behavior, and that jurors carry existing narratives and experiences into the courtroom.

“The one thing you can say with certainty is that courtrooms are not hermetically sealed from what’s going on in the world,” said Toobin. “That tension between wanting a verdict entirely on the evidence in the individual case and recognizing that politics and social conditions are always going to affect the outcome – that is I think part of the tension that’s always going to be present in courtrooms.”

<span class="element-image__caption">Jeffrey Toobin in 2019.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Alexander Drago/Reuters</span>
Jeffrey Toobin in 2019. Photograph: Alexander Drago/Reuters

With the exception of an interview with Toobin for the Diallo case, which he covered as a journalist for the New Yorker, the series’ producers stay behind the scenes; the chapters dive into the thicket of storytelling, attention and incendiary dynamics at the heart of the six cases rather than present a unified theory on the media’s role in US criminal trials. The perspective is not overall bleak – coverage of Diallo’s case helped explode tensions against the Giuliani administration’s street crimes policing against black and brown New Yorkers into a protest movement; the shocking details of the New Bedford case, printed and repeated again and again in media coverage, inspired a street-filling march of solidarity that could be a #MeToo march if not for the 80s clothing. The through-lines to the present reveal, Toobin said, how “courtrooms are laboratories where every societal ill or virtue is played out. Every problem in the society is going to be played out in a courtroom, and I think the series joins this inherent fascination with individual trials with these broader societal issues.”

With the cases of Simpson, or his book on the Clinton impeachment, “people always say ‘oh, I know the whole story,’” said Toobin. “They never know the whole story. They never know as much as they think they know.” People might think they remember the details of the Diallo and Goetz cases, two of the more high-profile examples, he said, but “if you watch, you see that you’ll learn a tremendous amount, and that these stories are always richer and more complicated the closer you get.”

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