O.J. Simpson Case Puts Courtroom Cameras on Trial Sensationalized News Coverage Renews Debate over the Effect of Television on Case Outcomes

Article excerpt

AS the O.J. Simpson trial grinds into its ninth month of legal tedium and grandstanding, polls show it has eroded public confidence in the judicial system. Critics often blame Judge Lance Ito, followed by a laundry list of flaws in the current system. But more and more, frustrated legal pundits are turning on the only silent witness in the court: the camera. In high-profile trials - from Susan Smith's murder case in South Carolina to Polly Klaas's kidnapping in California to the Texas trial of pop singer Selena's accused murderer - judges are banning cameras, hoping to avoid a Simpson-like circus atmosphere. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in June found that 55 percent of Americans say that criminal court trials should not be broadcast. Ironically, the ratings show large numbers of Americans are tuning in to the Simpson trial. "The camera has turned this into the longest-running entertainment special in America," says Don Hewitt, producer of CBS's "60 Minutes," who recently stunned many of his colleagues by criticizing Judge Ito for allowing the trial to be televised in the first place. Over the past 20 years, the controversy surrounding cameras in the courts had pretty much died down. Forty-seven states now allow them in one form or another. In many jurisdictions they have become as much a part of the process as the scribbling print reporter. But the Simpson trial has refueled opponents and re-opened the debate. "I'm concerned all the time about {a backlash}. I was concerned long before this trial," says Steven Brill, the founder and head of Court TV, which since 1991 has broadcast more than 380 trials. "I always felt the higher our visibility, the more people will think and rethink the issues. This is something that is very new to an old system that I cherish, too." Opponents blame the live, televised images of the Simpson trial for the daily media feeding frenzy, the lawyers' questionable antics, and the creation of a new brand of celebrity-hungry juror and witness. In short, they believe it has made a mockery of the judicial system. "Nobody is watching that to learn how a trial works," Mr. Hewitt says. "They're being entertained." But supporters of cameras in courts claim the critics confuse the neutral, televised broadcasts with the lurid sensationalism and second-rate reporting that have accompanied almost every high-profile celebrity trial this century, most of which were not televised. "Go back to the Sam Sheppard trial," says Peter Herford, a professor of journalism at Columbia University here, referring to the notorious 1954 murder case. "It was one of the biggest circuses of all time. It makes O.J. look like peanuts." Advocates also argue that live coverage gives Americans vital access to their own judicial system and a first-hand understanding of how it works, flaws and all. They say the broadcast coverage forces traditional court reporters to be more accurate and responsible. And they point to dozens of studies done over the past 20 years, almost all of which have found the presence of the camera has had a negligible impact. "The effect of cameras in the courts has been virtually nil," says Professor Herford, arguing that the broadcast press has a critical social role to play. "We're a nation of laws. It's the way we've chosen to live, and it all gets played out in the courts. That's where the big issues of our times get decided." The Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy and public trial. Advocates of cameras in the courts argue that the devices simply extend the cavernous public galleries that once were filled to capacity for every high-profile trial. But opponents argue there is a vast difference between a packed courtroom and a television audience of millions. And that difference, they say, can make or break a case. At the trial of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who confessed to drowning her two young sons, Judge William Howard banned cameras after pretrial testimony was complete. …

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