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TV REVIEW : 'Reports' Looks at Players in TV-Trial Jungle

January 07, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The media giveth, and the media taketh away--especially when it covers sensational trials. In another entry in the growing genre of the media covering itself, "Trial by Television," on the A&E channel's "Investigative Reports" series at 10 tonight, offers a quick gloss on the horrendously difficult issue of how First Amendment rights can be balanced with the right to a fair jury trial.

What producers Caroline Sommers' and Paul Gallagher's report lacks in depth it nearly makes up for in coverage. There are the grieving mothers of media-trial victims: Ellen Levin, mother of murdered Jennifer Levin, and Linda Wojas, mother of Pam Smart, convicted of murder conspiracy. There are the various attorneys of all stripes, from potent First Amendment advocate Alan Dershowitz and perennial defense attorney William Kunstler to hustling counsel David Lewis. There are the judges, like John A. K. Bradley of New York, who condemn cameras in the courtroom.

And, of course, there are the media stars, from New Hampshire TV reporter Bill Spenser, who starred as himself in the TV movie of the Smart case, to Fred Graham, anchor for Court TV, which brings the courtroom into your living room (that is, if you have the right cable carrier).

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Mostly everyone here defends their role in the trial-TV jungle, and sometimes they get bitten in their defense. Graham amusedly notes how Lewis, so quick to condemn media influence in the courtroom, has served as a Court TV commentator; Dershowitz deflates Bradley's gripes about cameras in court by remarking that the judge was a big "ham" on TV during the Leona Helmsley case.

Dershowitz provides the one useful suggestion during the hour of cross-debate: Place a camera in an enclosed booth with a two-way mirror in every American courtroom so the judge, jury, lawyers and witnesses never know when it is on.

This, however, would have no effect on the sensationalist pretrial coverage by TV news crews sniffing down good footage for the evening broadcast: It's this bloodhound mentality that Wojas insists prevented her daughter from having a fair trial. The only thing to do about it, as media critic Edwin Diamond correctly says, is to complain about coverage--not to censor it.

But what's dramatically wrong with "Trial by Television" isn't its central theme, but its East Coast bias. Even though it was made in advance of the Menendez case and the Michael Jackson affair, the report might have used any number of media-affected trials in Los Angeles, arguably the world capital of sensational cases. Kurtis' brief closing comment on the Rodney G. King beating trial hardly sums up the enormous influence that coverage of that case had on L.A. residents--including those who started rioting hours after the Simi Valley verdict.

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