Well, we’re only a short month and some days away from the commencement of the Kobe trial (show). Folks, this may be the mother of all reality shows, if it is televised. The show offers a story of a national celebrity at the height of his brilliant NBA career fighting for his reputation, life and endorsements. Meanwhile, a young woman is fighting for her reputation and vindication with future humongous monetary implications if she prevails. Also included in the story are tasty ingredients such as man vs. woman, indiscriminate vs. forced sex, a case of he said-she said, the battle of experts, the relative skills and charisma of the legal advocates, the recent sexual history of the alleged victim (if allowed), the racial subtext, the erotic and salacious evidence, forensic evidence, the alleged betrayal of a friendship, the Rape Shield Law, and, of course, the suspenseful question of guilt or innocence. What a delicious palette for the TV producers and reality show junkies of this extravaganza.
Potentially, Kobe offers a hybrid menu from “The Survivor,” “The Practice,” “CSI,” “Law and Order,” “Court TV” and Geraldo. In short, a mix of high drama and human foibles hyped up to be the ultimate soap opera.
The issue before us is whether the judge should allow cameras in the courtroom. He must carefully weigh and balance a number of competing interests. What will be the cost to justice and a woman’s right to protection under the Rape Shield Law? Will a televised trial have a chilling effect on a woman’s decision to come forward in the future? Will the trial be reduced to a farce and a sham, or a circus, as in O.J.? There is much at stake here: the First Amendment right to inform the public of those cases that test our system of justice, the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy and public trial, the Fifth Amendment right to due process of law requiring that the trial process itself be inherently fair. And, oh yes, the potential billions that will be made from an O.J.-style redux, or lost in its absence.
I began this article with a tongue-in-cheek recitation of the reasons why we might lust for a televised trial. Let me make amends. What makes this nation so special is the First Amendment. I am sure that is why it is the very first amendment to our Constitution. We have fought wars and shed blood over this fundamental right. Our government serves us, not the reverse. The American Revolution abolished the power of the government to censor our speech and our press so we could be informed, so we could penetrate the opaqueness and secrecy of the government. Thomas Jefferson said, “There is no safe deposit … but with the people themselves, nor can it be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”
Our rich and diverse history was founded on public trials. In Colonial America, the courthouse was the center of community life, where neighbors would come and watch the local trials and communally celebrate our open system of justice afterward in the town squares. Citizens were knowledgeable about their justice system. They personally saw if the trial was fair, whether a witness was believable, if the judge was biased or stupid or if the jury blatantly ignored the evidence.
Our life today is far more complicated. Most of us do not live near our courthouses, nor do we have first-hand knowledge of our justice system. We rely on the press to provide us with information the media believe to be most important. Most of the time the press is well meaning and honestly tries to write about what occurred, what was essential to know about the trial. While the print media have a greater opportunity to inform us through thoughtful and in-depth articles, often this does not occur.
But a majority of Americans receive their information from the broadcast. They are fed small spoonfuls of it between competing ads for “President of Beers,” thus leaving us lacking much information. That is information we need to have before we can make an informed opinion on whether the trial process is fair. We also hear the opinions of the talking heads, which are often simply inaccurate, or worse, disingenuous.
An unobtrusive, fixed and passive TV camera in the courtroom under the watchful eye of the judge that unemotionally records the trial process offers us the opportunity to judge for ourselves what actually happened in the courtroom. No media filters, no editorial cuts, no talking heads, no interruptions for beer commercials-just real life drama unfolding in courtrooms all over America. That is what a true reality show is all about.