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.”
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.”
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:
- Testimony: After opening arguments yesterday, the prosecution called Jena Lee Scurry—a 911 dispatcher who sent police to respond to a complaint against Floyd prior to his killing—as its first witness. Scurry, who watched the incident via a fixed police camera, told the court that Floyd lay motionless on the ground for so long that she initially thought her screens may have frozen; she reported then calling Chauvin’s supervisor to express her concern. “My instincts were telling me that something’s wrong, something was not right,” she said. “I don’t know what, but something wasn’t right.”
- The truth: On yesterday’s episode of The Daily, from the New York Times, host Michael Barbaro and reporter Shaila Dewan discussed the Chauvin case and the complications in seating a jury, given the massively widespread coverage of Floyd’s death. Dewan told the story of a Black potential juror who was unseated by the defense because he said that the criminal justice system is biased against Black people. But “a lot of what he said is demonstrably true… So it sort of became a little bit of a controversy. What if you believe the truth? Can that get you kicked off a jury?” The answer, Dewan said, is yes.
- Access: Last week, the court barred the Daily Mail from accessing media resources around the trial, on the grounds that the paper published “stolen” police body-camera footage of Floyd’s arrest last year. The week before that, Judge Cahill upbraided unnamed reporters for trying to read notes at the defense and prosecution tables, and for reporting on security measures in the courthouse; Cahill called the latter coverage “completely irresponsible,” and threatened repercussions against outlets that didn’t take it down.
- Pandemic precedents: Last year, I wrote about the Supreme Court broadcasting live audio of arguments for the first time in its history, in response to the pandemic. At the time, observers asked whether the live audio would prove to be a first step toward letting in cameras in future. “If SCOTUS had its druthers, it would probably have kept its oral arguments sealed off from the world forever, rejecting cameras in the courtroom even after Google someday implants webcams into every human retina,” Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern wrote. The first hearing that was broadcast, however, proved that the court “can do good law in public.”
Other notable stories:
- In her first article since joining The Atlantic from the Times, Caitlin Dickerson assesses “America’s immigration amnesia.” The arrival of unaccompanied children at the border, she writes, has “long ebbed and flowed”; the sense that facilities are overwhelmed now reflects, in part, that “the current uptick is simply getting more media attention. When Trump took office, in 2017, thirteen-thousand children were sitting in Health and Human Services facilities, about a thousand more than are in federal custody today; he did not receive any questions about the detention of migrants during his first press conference, and an online search did not turn up a single news story citing that statistic.”
- On Sunday, CNN’s Sanjay Gupta interviewed senior health officials who served under Trump during the pandemic; one of them, Dr. Deborah Birx, spoke of the difficulty of telling the public hard truths while Trump was in office, and said the death toll could have been much lower. Some viewers were critical of Birx, in particular: Dr. Megan Ranney wrote for CNN that she allowed “the regime’s lies to go unchecked”; Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce said the interview “brought an enormous temptation toward ungovernable rage.” The Post’s Dan Diamond reports that the CNN program is “among the first of a slew of in-progress books” and projects in which Trump officials will tell their side of the story.
- Felicia Sonmez—a reporter at the Washington Post who has spoken often about her experience of sexual violence, and revealed over the weekend that the paper had, as a consequence, barred her from covering sexual assault—said yesterday that the coverage ban has been rescinded. “This is good news,” Sonmez said, “but it’s unfortunate that it had to come at such a high emotional toll.” The Post’s reversal came after a Politico story about the ban was widely shared online, though a spokesperson for the paper said that editors began “reevaluating” the limitations two weeks ago.
- Michael de Adder—a cartoonist who was terminated by a Canadian publisher, in 2019, after a Trump-critical drawing went viral—is joining the Post. In other media-jobs news, Maia Hibbett joined The Intercept as an associate politics editor. And Lara Trump, the wife of Eric, is now a Fox News contributor. “I sort of feel like I’ve been an unofficial member of the team for so long,” she said on air. “Over the past five years, I would come there so often that the security guards were like, Maybe we should just give you a key.”
- The Maryland hotel magnate Stewart Bainum, Jr.’s, bid to buy Tribune Publishing out of the clutches of Alden Global Capital continues to gather support. After Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss billionaire, partnered with Bainum in the eventual hope of acquiring the Chicago Tribune, Mason Slaine, an existing Tribune shareholder, agreed to chip in, too, with the goal of acquiring Tribune’s Florida titles, the Orlando Sentinel and the Sun Sentinel. And Gary Lutin, a former banker, wants to buy the Morning Call, in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
- The Auschwitz-Birkenau museum and Polish officials slammed language in a New Yorker article, by Masha Gessen, about legal threats to Holocaust scholarship in Poland, taking issue, in particular, with a subheading that they said implied national responsibility for the murders of three million Jews. The New Yorker amended the subheading, but stood behind the article; Gessen—who reported receiving “hate mail, including death threats” in response—said critics had misunderstood the language used in the piece.
- In Australia, Nine Entertainment was forced off air on Sunday morning after it was hit by a cyber attack; programming is now back, but the attack has continued to cause disruption, including at the Sydney Morning Herald, which Nine owns. The Herald reports that the hackers appear to have had “considerable resources and expertise at their disposal, in the realm of serious organised crime or even a nation state.”
- On Sunday, worshippers in the Netherlands physically attacked journalists covering church services that went ahead in violation of the country’s lockdown rules. According to Deutsche Welle, a churchgoer in the town of Krimpen aan den Ijssel hit and kicked a reporter, and was subsequently arrested; a worshipper in Urk, meanwhile, deliberately hit a cameraman with his car. None of the journalists sustained serious injuries.
- And Liza Lin, of the Wall Street Journal, spoke with Tzu-i Chuang, a food writer who is married to Jim Mullinax, the former US consul general in Chengdu, China. Last year, amid rising tensions that led to the closure of the Chengdu consulate, Chuang faced a wave of abuse on social media that was encouraged by state news outlets. Pro-China papers in Taiwan and Hong Kong even smeared her as a sex worker and a spy.