Will TV Cameras Turn Trials into Survivor? (the Last Word)

By West, Woody | Insight on the News, April 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Will TV Cameras Turn Trials into Survivor? (the Last Word)


West, Woody, Insight on the News


A round of applause, please, for the judges who have rejected TV cameras in three high-visibility criminal cases. Two of these cases are in Virginia--the separate pending trials of the pair charged with homicide during the vicious sniper shootings that terrorized the Washington area and several states and left at least 10 persons killed and three wounded. The third instance is in Texas where public television thought it would be dandy to videotape jury deliberations in a capital case.

The camera has insinuated itself into nearly every cranny of the culture, the bedroom not excluded. Indeed, we now live--heaven help us--in a social environment dominated by the electronic media. A cable channel devoted to court cases illustrates how thoroughly the justice system has been penetrated.

The solemn rationale is that TV cameras "demystify" and result in a better-informed citizenry. It is, instead, a perverse form of entertainment (the O.J. trial, of course, is a conspicuous example). All 50 states now permit courtroom cameras under varying conditions, though only 37 allow them in criminal cases. Never mind the expressed justifications, televised trials are another slicing away of respect for fragile institutions. These subtractions deform the open society in which restraint is part of liberty.

The arguments on behalf of courtroom cameras are not frivolous. Routine use of television in such a solemn context, however, emphasizes the radical egalitarianism that defers to no one or no thing. A camera significantly if subtly transforms its field of vision and those in it, no matter how carefully controlled; a camera cannot help but trivialize that on which it focuses by introducing a starkly artificial element. There remain pockets of resistance to cameras in the courtroom--the Supreme Court notably. May it ever stand fast against allowing the ubiquitous lens in the august chamber.

Regretfully, to argue against the practice is a losing baffle for the most part for those who contend that the justice system must retain a degree of aloofness to preserve what dignity yet endures--and dignity increasingly is a casualty of the politicization of the judiciary.

Thus, it is heartening that cameras have been prohibited in the pending trials (summary execution now being generally frowned upon) of the pair charged in last fall's vicious sniper killings. Lee Boyd Malvo, 18, is to be tried in November in Fairfax County, Va. A phalanx of network-and cable-TV reporters a few days ago asked Judge Jane Marum Roush to permit them to broadcast the trial, and newspapers asked that still photography be permitted.

"I am concerned with the possible prejudice to Mr. Malvo of photography--whether still or television," the judge said recently in rejecting the requests. …

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