The trial of Derek Chauvin, and the debate about cameras in court

Earlier this month—with jury selection set to begin in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd last year—Steven Zeitchik, of the Washington Post, checked in with staffers at Court TV, as they prepared to set up their cameras in the courtroom. The network, Zeitchik wrote, was aiming to recapture its buzzy nineties heyday by making the Chauvin trial “a kind of O.J. Simpson event for the modern world,” albeit with less tabloid-style drama. “We want to show the reality of the courtroom,” Scott Tufts, a Court TV executive, said, “not reality television.” Staffers grappled, initially, with what shorthand to use, since Floyd isn’t on trial but is more famous than Chauvin; in the end, they went with “The Death of George Floyd Murder Trial,” and put those words, in between pictures of Chauvin and Floyd, at the end of a trailer scored with pounding music. In other promotional materials, Court TV claimed to be the “only network in the world” offering “live, gavel-to-gavel coverage” of the trial—a claim that led the rival Law&Crime Network to sue for false advertising.

Court TV is the only network filming the trial, but it is doing so, effectively, on a pool basis, with other networks able to air its footage free of charge. Yesterday, at least, that footage was wall to wall: ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, and Newsmax all broadcast opening arguments in the trial, with CNN, MSNBC, C-SPAN, HLN, and Black News Channel joining Court TV and Law&Crime in sticking around past that point. (According to the AP, HLN and Black News Channel are, like the latter two networks, promising “full coverage of all arguments”; the cable networks will likely dip in and out of coverage from here on.) Viewers watched the prosecution make its case, which centered on a nine-and-a-half-minute video of Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck, followed by the defense. In the breaks, networks offered reporting from outside the courthouse—“Look no further than social media and even just our own visceral reaction,” CNN’s Omar Jimenez said, calling the video “very difficult to watch”—as well as punditry. “How do you overcome that video?” Rikki Klieman, a legal analyst on CBS, said. “I think, if I were defending Derek Chauvin, I would have been tempted to put in that body camera or that other surveillance footage that showed a battling George Floyd or the police car rocking back and forth.”

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Chauvin’s trial is the first ever to be broadcast live and in-full from a Minnesota courtroom, a development that hasn’t come without controversy. The office of Keith Ellison, the state attorney general, opposed it, arguing that TV cameras might lead to witness intimidation, and that reporters could instead use overflow facilities to watch the court’s own closed-circuit footage. News organizations opposed this suggestion on constitutional grounds, in part due to the poor quality of that footage; Chauvin’s attorneys also argued in favor of a live TV broadcast. In the end, Judge Peter Cahill authorized TV cameras, pointing to the “quite unique” circumstances of intense interest combined with limited access due to the pandemic; only two reporters are allowed inside the courtroom at any one time. Not that the cameras can film with total freedom: their license to zoom is limited, Floyd’s relatives and juvenile witnesses can’t be shown without their consent, and jurors can’t be shown at all. At one point during jury selection, Cahill ordered a COVID plexiglass barrier removed after it reflected a potential juror into the line of the camera.

The controversy over the broadcast hasn’t been limited to legal filings, but has played out in the community, too. Jaton White, who works in community wellness in Minneapolis, told Minnesota Public Radio’s Matt Sepic that while people naturally want to know what’s happening in court, “there are people with some mental health and emotional damage that might not be repairable if we don’t start doing things right now that are preventative. And putting this trial on TV is not one of those preventative measures.” Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Rochelle Olson that the trial is “an opportunity to demonstrate that cameras neither detract from the solemnity of the proceedings nor do they interfere with the court’s ability to get on with its work.” Kirtley hopes that the broadcast will set a precedent beyond the necessity of the pandemic. “There will be a great deal of pressure on government entities to continue this level of access,” she said.

While the circumstances of Chauvin’s case are exceptional, such arguments are, at root, iterations of a national debate over cameras and courts that dates back to at least the thirties—when newsreel editors distributed dramatic witness testimony in the Lindbergh-baby case, in violation of their agreement with the judge—and flares whenever a high-profile suspect goes on trial. This debate has, historically, taken different forms around still and moving images, federal and state courts, and criminal and civil cases; nor has there been a linear move toward greater general acceptance of cameras over time. Its general points of contention, however, are consistent. Advocates of the practice tend to argue that broadcasting court proceedings facilitates scrutiny of the legal system, and basic transparency. Courts generally allow members of the public to attend; in the digital age, what’s the justification for keeping physical limits on access? Opponents often argue that live TV coverage disadvantages defendants, and changes the dynamics of trials in undesirable ways—like encouraging lawyers to play to the court of public opinion, rather than the actual court—without fixing the many flaws of the justice system. “I think transparency is bull,” Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California, told Zeitchik, of the Post. “If you buy into the concept, you’re buying into the bull, because you’re accepting the fact that this is a legitimate process that’s blind.”

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As I’ve written before, in the different context of hackneyed “made for TV” punditry about Trump, criticisms of TV as a medium are often hard to separate from debates about the toxicity of American TV culture, which is a more specific phenomenon. The presence of cameras will not, in and of itself, fix the systemic biases of the justice system or encourage lawyers to behave more scrupulously—but these problems are, ultimately, not the fault of TV cameras; it’s the job of the people on either side of the camera to do the fixing, including, in the case of the news media, by using transparency to sharpen scrutiny, rather than sell cheap hype. Arguments around fairness and intimidation are weightier; ultimately, they demand evidence and case-by-case consideration. With those decisions now made in the Floyd case, we must, indeed, focus on its horrifying reality. There is plenty of that on show.

Below, more on the trial:


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.