The Watchful Eye: American Justice in the Age of the Television Trial

The Watchful Eye: American Justice in the Age of the Television Trial

The Watchful Eye: American Justice in the Age of the Television Trial

The Watchful Eye: American Justice in the Age of the Television Trial

Synopsis

According to Thaler, the presence of cameras in the courtroom is a pervasive technology that can affect public perceptions of the judicial process, change the behavior and attitudes of trial participants, and ultimately transform the sober process of justice into a media event designed for maximum public exposure. The author has interviewed more than 50 people--prominent journalists, academics, and members of the legal system--and brought together their observations in a fascinating historical and psychological profile of the televised courtroom. Thaler provides a historical overview and theoretical perspective, and discusses the new cable courtroom network and the current and continuing camera debate in New York City. He makes reference to the recent celebrated cases involving Amy Fisher, William Kennedy Smith, and Rodney King, then turns to an in-depth case study of the Joel Steinberg murder trial, including insights from the presiding judge, trial attorneys, witnesses, jurors, and the defendant himself, as well as journalists who covered the trial. The author concludes that the process of justice is slowly being turned into an entertainment vehicle, not unlike the show trials of bygone eras.

Excerpt

The idea for this book originated long before I was ever conscious that it existed. Writing can be a painfully slow process that often begins with a whimper of a thought that is at first barely noticeable to the mind's eye. the process somehow began for me in a New York University classroom where scholars by the names of Neil Postman, Christine Nystrom, and Terrance Moran rekindled old fires of intellectual curiosity.

This book is about one idea that caught on six years ago and has not let go since. Writing The Watchful Eye has been an extraordinary journey that began in 1988 when Neil Postman was asked to serve as a member of a state advisory committee, a group of prominent journalists, academicians, and attorneys who were assigned to study the recently enacted camera-in-the-courtroom law in New York. Characteristically, Neil opened the intellectual gates to his students, proposing that a small group of "media ecologists" help to investigate the ramifications of an experiment that had been embraced by the vast majority of states across the country. Our studies soon shifted from the theoretical to the pragmatic as we explored this newly mediated environment.

Two of my colleagues took different paths of study. Roberta Entner conducted a meticulous semiotic study of trial telecasts, making sense of television's "language" and manipulative power in shaping and defining courtroom images. William Petkanas laid to rest longstanding claims that the in-court camera was an educational tool that could elevate civic understanding of the justice system, a key rationale used by camera proponents. Both studies are referred to in this book, and I am grateful for my colleagues' scholastic wisdom and even more so for their genuine friendship during these past years.

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