The Media Today

The trials of our century

April 15, 2024
Former US President Donald Trump, center, during an announcement at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, US, on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. Trump formally entered the 2024 US presidential race, making official what he's been teasing for months just as many Republicans are preparing to move away from their longtime standard bearer. Photographer: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg

Donald Trump is adept at looming over stories that don’t immediately involve him, and so it was again last week with the passing of O.J. Simpson, who died from cancer at seventy-six. One obituary, in the LA Times, inadvertently used Trump’s name rather than Simpson’s to narrate an aspect of the latter’s life; others steered clear of on-the-nose typos, but did trace a line, implicitly or explicitly, from Simpson to the media culture that gave us Trump’s presidency. Simpson’s 1995 trial on charges that he murdered his ex-wife and her friend (he was acquitted but later found civilly liable for their deaths) ushered in an age of noisy information saturation and sensationalized “infotainment,” we were told, while demonstrating the power of media to unite a country around a shared obsession and at the same time sharply divide perceptions of it. And it turbocharged the appeal of reality TV and cable news, with its rotating cast of bloviating talking heads, while providing impetus for the creation of Fox News—a “three-legged stool” of factors, CNN’s Oliver Darcy argued, without which it is “difficult to imagine” Trump becoming president. 

Simpson’s trial also echoed—again, implicitly or explicitly—in at least some coverage of the most pressing current story involving Trump: starting today, he will go on criminal trial himself—the first former president ever to do so—in a New York case alleging that he paid hush money to the adult-film star Stormy Daniels to cover up an affair in the run-up to the 2016 election, then falsified records to conceal the payment. Like Simpson’s trial before it, Trump’s has been dubbed “the trial of the century” in some quarters; analysts, meanwhile, have compared various legal dynamics at play across the two. On The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon quipped that Trump had requested a delay to his trial so that he might mourn Simpson’s death (a reference to Trump’s very real, and only slightly less ridiculous, attempts to push his case back). “It’s fitting that President Trump’s trial is starting on the heels of O.J. Simpson’s passing,” Giancarlo Sopo, a Republican media strategist, told NBC News. “The media circus around their legal troubles is similar, with one key difference: The more people heard about the Simpson case, the more they thought he was guilty. With Trump, the opposite is true.”

While the latter claim might be questionable (more on which later), the “media circus” around the two cases does indeed seem comparable. (Indeed, Trump invoked it as one of his grounds for a delay, suggesting that the flood of coverage would make the trial unfair; the judge denied the request, pointing out that Trump courted coverage himself.) After Trump was indicted in the case last year, news networks looped endless footage of his journey from Florida to New York to be arraigned—inviting inevitable parallels with the coverage of Simpson’s infamous flight from police in a white Ford Bronco in 1994, so much so that “O.J. Simpson” briefly trended on Twitter. (The footage of Trump headed to his arraignment, by plane then by car, rolled up “Trump-era and O.J.-era TV excess in one package,” the New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote at the time.) Heading into the trial, journalists have pointed out that some of the media characters who found pundit fame during Simpson’s trial are still around for Trump’s. Others have chronicled the logistics of the media circus this time, given access restrictions at the courthouse. “On the one hand, it’s just like any other case, any other day at court,” one reporter told Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein last week. “On the other hand, it’s the fucking Thunderdome.”

Of course, there are also ample differences between the two trials: not least that Simpson, unlike Trump, was charged with murder, and that Trump, unlike Simpson, is a former and would-be future president. These differences extend to the media context around the trials, too: where Simpson’s captivated a nation as a live courtroom drama, Trump’s will not be broadcast on TV at all, a contrast that various observers have held up as highly significant. 

This is fair. But I would argue that it doesn’t necessarily take cameras in court to make a media circus. Perhaps a more consequential difference is the wider media environment into which Trump’s trial is falling, one that has evolved substantially over the past thirty years. At the very least, the novelty of that period has long since worn off. If the three-legged stool of reality TV, cable bluster, and Fox News is still standing—and is visibly propping up some of the coverage of Trump’s trial—in other ways that coverage feels different, or at least is being consumed in a different context.

If Trump’s New York trial will not be televised, that isn’t for want of trying on the part of news organizations—as he prepared to be arraigned in the case last year, various outlets asked the judge to let cameras in, but he declined. (A handful of still photographers were allowed to snap Trump in the courtroom but were required to leave before the proceedings began.) If this decision seemed miserly, it was at least consistent: while some trials are broadcast, like Simpson’s, New York courts have fairly tight restrictions on the practice, as does the federal judiciary. (The trials in other criminal cases that Trump is facing will likely be cameraless, too, though Georgia, where Trump has been charged with participating in a conspiracy to subvert the 2020 election, does permit cameras in court. Whether these other trials are able to take place before the election is a different question.) 

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As I’ve written before in this newsletter, the debate around whether to allow cameras in a given case typically follows similar contours: supporters of the practice argue that it is essential for transparency; detractors counter that it can tip the scales of justice and incentivize lawyers to mug for the court of public opinion, triggering the descent into circus-like conditions or reality TV (with Simpson’s trial often held up as exhibit A). In Trump’s case, observers have also debated whether the presence or absence of cameras might benefit him more. As suggested above, he has often exploited reality-TV-type dynamics in the past. And yet the courtroom is a setting that he can’t stage-manage—one synonymous, arguably, with his disempowerment, when Trump prefers to project strength and control. (His lawyers, perhaps, feared this impression when they argued last year that allowing cameras for his arraignment would only feed the “media circus”—a position that otherwise smacked of the Ringling brothers calling for a federal ban on big tops.)

The broader debate around cameras in court is a consequential one with concrete implications for how justice is served and seen to be served. (I’m generally pro, as I explained here.) But again, I don’t think Trump needs them to make his trial a circus; indeed, their absence may help him to do so on his own terms. As Poniewozik put it in the Times earlier this year, Trump has exploited “a void in TV imagery” of his recent court proceedings—not only in criminal court, but in civil cases involving his business and alleged defamation and sexual assault of the writer E. Jean Carroll—by railing against them from outside the courtroom: “With the trial(s) of the century unfolding behind closed doors, the cameras will be hungry,” Poniewozik wrote, and “if there’s one thing Mr. Trump knows, it’s how to feed them.” As cable networks, in particular, showed last year with their breathless live coverage of Trump’s journey to his arraignment, if they want to make an O.J.-style legal reality show of the story, they won’t let a trivial thing like a lack of access stand in their way.

In other respects, though, the atmosphere around the trial coverage feels different from the Simpson case. Admittedly, I’m not the best person to make a direct one-to-one comparison here—when Simpson went on trial, I was two years old. But now, at least, the media effort to gin up excitement around Trump’s trial feels to me somewhat forced. The Bronco chase, I am led to believe, was genuinely exciting; the footage of Trump’s car making its way to his arraignment a year ago was anything but, as Paul Farhi, then of the Washington Post, noted at the time. The arraignment did appear to juice cable news ratings. And yet, on the whole, the frenzied excitement that greeted the Trump story as he first ran for, and won, the presidency—as seen in the much-discussed “Trump bump” for major outlets—seems to have fizzled into a form of collective fatigue. The broader Trump story may now be more akin to a car crash than a car chase: our eyes might still be glued to it, but we probably don’t feel great about it.

Even amid the media circus of Trump’s arraignment in the New York case, there were signs that some in the press weren’t anticipating a lavishly dramatic story going forward. Rachel Maddow warned at the time that while the story of the case appeared to have momentum, it would likely turn out to be boring in ways that the “punditocracy” seemed not to have prepared for; it could come to feel like “reading the small print on the back of a lottery ticket,” she said. Many members of the punditocracy, meanwhile, dismissed the case against Trump as legally weak even before seeing details of the indictment, often regretting that he wasn’t charged first in one of the other, more serious criminal matters that he faces, not least the federal case in which he was eventually charged with trying to subvert the election. As I wrote at the time, no few media analysts seemed to find the New York case unserious. One dismissed it as “the stripper case.”

Fast-forward to the eve of the trial, and this assessment may have changed in some quarters: last week, the New York Times reported that “many experts” now see the New York case as being “considerably stronger” than they once did; some polling, meanwhile, suggests that a clear majority of the public considers the charges to be serious. But skeptics remain. (In the LA Times, the election-law expert Rick Hasen wrote over the weekend that he has “a hard time even mustering a ‘meh’” about the case compared with the election-subversion one.) And, while the media circus around the case as a whole is well-documented (see above) and will surely only ramp up for the trial itself, it felt to me relatively (with the emphasis on relatively) muted over the weekend, given the historic stakes. On the Sunday shows, for example, the trial was overshadowed by Iran’s (also historic) attack on Israel. It was also, in places, overshadowed by the abortion ban in Arizona. Face the Nation mentioned the trial only as an aside. Meet the Press discussed it mostly in its closing panel segment.

I am not saying that this is a bad thing. Indeed, it may even be a good one—the Israel and abortion stories are highly substantive, and one frequent criticism of the media landscape birthed by the Simpson trial has been a lack of substance. Personally, I saw little value in the Bronco-style coverage of Trump’s plane and motorcade a year ago. Even the purveyors of that type of coverage likely recognize that they’ll have to pace themselves now given the length of the trial. At times, the coverage is already resembling reality TV. It surely will again. 

And yet this case against Trump is itself a substantive story—even if the legal merits can legitimately be debated, the charges are serious, involving a possible alleged campaign-finance crime, not just a tawdry extramarital affair. They deserve better than dismissal as unserious reality-TV fodder or as a circus—claims, indeed, that echo the recent talking points of some Trump allies—even if we want the coverage to steer clear of reality or circus tropes. Ultimately, it should center what coverage of Simpson should always have centered, and should still, even in his death: the facts of the case and the legal process surrounding it.

Yesterday, Meet the Press reflected on Simpson’s death before it finally got into its panel discussion on the Trump trial, airing an archival clip of the sportscaster Bob Costas, who once worked with Simpson, appearing on the show to discuss the case ahead of Simpson’s trial. “This is a tragedy that, I guess almost inevitably in this mass-media age…has rapidly become a spectacle,” Costas said. “But we have to keep in mind a horrible crime has been committed.”

Other notable stories:

  • This morning, Iran’s unprecedented weekend attack on Israel, pitched as retaliation against the latter country’s recent strike on an Iranian diplomatic facility in Syria, continues to dominate the news cycle. Iran fired hundreds of missiles and drones at targets inside of Israel, though it telegraphed its attack in advance and most of the weapons were intercepted by Israel and its allies; one Israeli air base was slightly damaged while a seven-year-old girl sustained serious injuries. The story is continuing to develop as Israel weighs how to respond, with various observers fearing a serious regional escalation. In other news, late last week, several journalists were injured, one critically, in an apparent Israeli strike on a refugee camp in Gaza. CNN has more details.
  • And the Colorado Republican Party attracted widespread criticism last week after it expelled Sandra Fish, a veteran journalist in the state, from an event on the grounds that the party’s pro-Trump chairman found her reporting to be unfair. Now the Colorado media-watcher Corey Hutchins reports that the Colorado Sun, a nonprofit outlet where Fish works, has seen a surge of support in the wake of the incident, fielding dozens of sign-ups and thousands of dollars in fresh donations.  

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.