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If Bin Laden Survives for Trial, It Should Be on TV

November 30, 2001|Howard Rosenberg

Much of television news inevitably comes down to its own celebrities and entertainment.

The Fox News Channel has many people covering Afghanistan, for example, but only one starring in his own melodramatic promo. Say hi to Geraldo Rivera, informing viewers that love of country led him to enlist as a foreign correspondent-come-lately in the war against terrorism.

Meanwhile, CNN has granted battle-tested Christiane Amanpour her own nightly show from the war front, glitzily titled "Live From Afghanistan."

That glimmer of show-biz rhetoric aside ...

The consensus of this week's talking heads is that the following is highly improbable but something to chat about anyway, because the stakes are potentially so high and schmoozing endlessly is cable news networks' preferred way of filling their vast stretches of time:

Osama bin Laden is captured in the mountains of Afghanistan.

He is not executed on the spot by Geraldo.

He is brought to the U.S. or one of its military bases in the Pacific and tried for terrorism.

You're rolling your eyes because the chances of this man ever touching U.S. soil are remote. If we've learned anything in recent months, though, it's that ruling out the unexpected can be premature.

So ... extending this hypothetical, what happens if Bin Laden does face his U.S. accusers in court?

It's difficult envisioning a scenario in which the boogeyman Americans most despise would be prosecuted in one of those military tribunals that President Bush has evoked in an action drawing criticism from both the left and the right for being against the spirit of U.S. openness. You know, the possible out-of-view trials of foreigners charged with terrorist offenses, proceedings that conservative columnist William Safire predicts would be "military kangaroo courts."

A secret trial followed by a terse public announcement of Bin Laden's status, then on to "Survivor" and "Harry Potter"?

Even if lawful, such a trial would not be tolerated by America's collective consciousness. Lesser terrorist suspects could have their cases settled in the shadows probably without large public outcry. But public interest in a Bin Laden trial would be too intense for the Feds to bottle and ignore.

His trial would be historic, arguably the most significant of our time, bigger, yes, even than O.J. Simpson's. Even Americans who advocate promptly disemboweling Bin Laden and impaling him on a stake believe, surely, that the trial of such a global villain should not play out in secret.

Now that we agree on that ...

The next logical step would be to obtain maximum public exposure by allowing TV cameras to cover a Bin Laden trial.

Yes, that stormy debate again. Cameras in the courtroom? It's a crossroads of the 1st and 6th amendments, where some believe freedom of expression and the public's right to know inevitably collide with a citizen's right to a fair and speedy trial.

Bin Laden is no U.S. citizen, however, and it's hard imagining many Americans being sensitive to the fairness issue when it applies to a reviled foreigner accused of terrorism that includes ordering the Sept. 11 murders of thousands of innocent Americans and others.

So what would be the barrier? This.

Although California and 46 other states allow trials to be televised at the discretion of presiding judges, cameras are banned from federal criminal trials, and only rarely have federal civil actions been on TV. That's so even though the federal judiciary is as accountable to the public as other courts, and courtroom cameras are unobtrusively small and quiet and can be made stationary so that jurors are never shown.

Quietly driving this no-cameras philosophy at the federal level is the U.S. Supreme Court, which stubbornly refuses to allow its own hearings to be televised, a regressive attitude that robs the public of an opportunity to witness the workings of the highest legal body in the land.

Hello! It's the 21st century.

If ever there were a case meriting suspension of archaic rules banning TV from federal courtrooms, it was the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Even more worthy would be a trial involving Bin Laden.

The question of whether Bin Laden could get a fair trial in the U.S.--explored by experts without consensus in a Court TV special Thursday night--is better left to the legal crowd. Might the presence of cameras make impaneling an impartial jury even harder, though? Possibly. Excluding cameras from such a trial, though, would be unfair to the public.

There's a long history of media being bad actors at sensational trials, at least as far back as the frenzy surrounding Bruno Hauptmann's 1935 conviction for the murder of Charles Lindbergh's infant son. Intrusive newsreel cameras were allowed inside that courtroom, and Hauptmann was brutalized by newspapers well before the jury got the case.

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