MEDIA WATCH

The criminal trial as sport spectacle

Pow! John Madden’s shtick as a football color commentator came automatically to mind as I watched the O. J. Simpson hearings.

GEORGE BAIN February 20 1995
MEDIA WATCH

The criminal trial as sport spectacle

Pow! John Madden’s shtick as a football color commentator came automatically to mind as I watched the O. J. Simpson hearings.

GEORGE BAIN February 20 1995

The criminal trial as sport spectacle

MEDIA WATCH

Pow! John Madden’s shtick as a football color commentator came automatically to mind as I watched the O. J. Simpson hearings.

GEORGE BAIN

In the first days of the O. J. Simpson trial proper, as distinct from all the preliminaries, I watched as some professor of law told me what the prosecution and the defence had in mind to do in doing what I had just seen done, and how the jury might be affected by it, and whether the prosecution or the defence won or lost. I said, Pow!, and immediately turned to see where my copy was of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman.

Pow! is an exclamation favored by John Madden, a former coach of the NFL Something-or-Others, previously on CBS, now on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network. He uses Pow! evidently to characterize the dramatic nature of the game, the clash of bodies and all that. The larger part of his job is to explain things like how this team erred in not having taken the field goal from an easy 20 yards out but elected instead to try for the touchdown, and what the coach of the team now behind would need to do to turn things around in the second half. Experting, in other words.

Madden’s connection to the O. J. Simpson trial is nil, except that his shtick as a football commentator came automatically to mind as I watched that legal commentator in Los Angeles. His and Madden’s functions were the same. From that realization, it was just a step to Amusing Ourselves to Death. In that book, published by Penguin Books in 1985, a central point is that the trouble with television is its being devoted entirely to supplying its audience with entertainment. Football is entertainment; criminal trials are busily being made so. Before long, one of the many color commentators of the courtroom at the O. J. Simpson trial will spring out of the pack as a star and will be signed by CNN as a regular.

Postman does not argue that all television is entertainment, but that in whatever it tries, television strives overall to be engaging. The effect in total, either way, is to be simply trivi-

alizing; thus the quality of public discourse is reduced to very little, largely because in presenting news to us packaged as vaudeville, television induces other media to do the same. Borrowing the idea of color commentators from sports is part of popularizing a form of contest with which the public is not familiar by putting it on a plane with one that is; thus, both become sport spectacles.

I don’t know how long sports-type commentators have been recognized as integral to television coverage of criminal trials; evidently not long. I became aware of their existence only in the past year. That came about in reading an essay, “Reporting the Rodney King Trial: the Role of Legal Experts,” by Laurie L. Levenson, a former prosecutor, then teaching in a law school. It appeared in the law review of Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles in January, 1994.

Levenson’s conclusions from her experience as a legal color commentator were mixed. One of her pro-commentator points was that legal experts were better able to decipher the meanings of the law for the laity. Also, they would know more assuredly when the performances of the players strayed from the proper practice. And she felt they could

encapsule the important exchanges of a day’s sitting more readily and more accurately than journalists, which may or may not be so. Levenson herself found that more a “Yes, but...” proposition. Reporters had at least a textbook responsibility to approach events objectively; the freelance courtroom expert, she concluded, was under no restraint if inclined to propagandize his or her own ideas on the law.

She did not go into the matter of the legal commentator whose criticisms of the conduct of a trial could have the effect, intended or not, of exercising pressure on the players by bringing public opinion to bear. It is my notion that public opinion doesn’t belong in criminal trials. There, the public interest, by design, is delegated to a panel of lay persons, as little predisposed as possible, who will determine under the guidance of a judge as to the law, whether the facts and arguments assembled this side are more persuasive than those of the other.

A satirical proposition in Amusing Ourselves to Death, to return to that, is that “television serves us most usefully when presenting junk entertainment [and] most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse—news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion [to which may be added, criminal trials]—and turns them into entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better.” Ten years later, it can be assumed he is reassured; it has.

Another proposition is that television does not dictate what the public may contemplate but overwhelms all opposition with the endless agreeableness of its content: “What we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, non-historical, and non-contextual.... In America, we are never denied the opportunity to amuse ourselves.”

And again: ‘When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”

But none of that applies to us. Well, not all of it; those Super Bowls of criminal justice, in particular—the trial over Rodney King’s beating, the trial of the lady who chopped her husband’s thing off, the O. J. Simpson classic—we haven’t had anything like any one of those. But, to quote Neil Postman again: “Americans have moved far and fast in bringing to a close the age of the slow-moving printed word, and have granted to television sovereignty over all of their institutions.” We have been slow. But the CBC— surprisingly supported editorially by The Globe and Mail, which still lives by that slow-moving printed word—has taken the coincidence of an 0. J. Simpson trial in California and a Bernardo trial imminent in Ontario to renew the effort to put cameras in the courts and have another institution surrendered. Pow!