Beware the media circus

By Hannah Sparks

Courtesy of 83Degrees Media

For as long as there have been courts, there have been famous cases that have the ability to hold the public’s attention. Certain cases, integral to the American identity at this point, have been branded into our minds from childhood: The Scopes Monkey Trial. Brown v. Board of Education. Roe v. Wade.

But something separates Plessy v. Ferguson from, say, the trials of O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony – the scope and intensity of the media attention devoted to them. With courtroom cameras, constant television coverage, and now, input from users of social media, the trial-slash-media-circus has become such a fixture of the news cycle that it nearly flies under the radar as the strange spectacle that it really is.

We eat it up, sometimes for pure voyeuristic pleasure, and other times for more legitimate purposes. Occasionally, the full-on media circus is warranted because it draws attention to the issues highlighted by the case. This summer’s mega trials – of George Zimmerman and James “Whitey” Bulger – can claim this to a certain degree..

Racism, controversial Stand Your Ground laws and gun control were all at the heart of the Zimmerman trial. President Barack Obama used the case to urge Americans to “stem the tide of gun violence” as a way of honoring Trayvon Martin.

But the relevance of these serious issues to the trial doesn’t excuse the defense’s tasteless knock-knock jokes or the ruthless take-down of the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, with whom Trayvon Martin was talking on the phone when he was shot, by pundits and the public. That was pure performance.

The Bulger trial sparked discussion of corruption in law enforcement and the government, as Bulger and partner Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi were once “top echelon” FBI informants, recruited by dirty FBI agent John Connolly, who is now in prison. Star witnesses like Flemmi and John Martorano were former mobsters who testified against Bulger under immunity.

You might not agree with Bulger’s claim that his trial was a “sham,” but some of these factors make it hard to know who to trust in the trial of a mobster in whose world back-stabbing and lying were simply par for the course.

But despite the larger issues at play in these trials, the focus is of course always on the payoff — the verdict — and, most importantly, whether the jury’s findings match the judgments the public has already made for itself. And as in any situation in which there are high expectations, the chances for disappointment are equally high.

Some Massachusetts taxpayers feel angered by the expensive yet largely uncontroversial display that was the Whitey Bulger trial. Though his court-appointed (and taxpayer-funded) lawyer, J.W. Carney Jr., is part of one of the best legal teams in the state, obviously the world-famous mobster wasn’t going to avoid being sent to prison for the rest of his life.

The draw of the trial wasn’t the uncertainty of the outcome, but the fact that Bulger had finally been found and returned to the city he had once “terrorized” in order to face the long-awaited music.

The George Zimmerman trial was a bust in the public’s eyes as well, but for a different reason. Whether you blame the prosecution, Florida attorney general Angela Corey, or the jury, Zimmerman didn’t receive the punishment that so many thought he deserved.

That trial was, in a certain way, a kind of study in our justice system, in which proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is more important than the weight of public opinion. In the long run, it does benefit us to have those legal standards, even when they don’t match up with what we’ve decided the sentence should be.

Regardless of the details or outcomes, the main problem with media-circus trials is that, in the end, they are distractions, modern-day gladiator fights in which we hang on the judge or jury’s thumbs-up or thumbs-down, but are still inevitably let down.

No outcome could possibly match the hype that surrounds these cases, so we should just avoid the hype and let the most important issues and facts of the trial speak for themselves.

By funneling so much attention into a few designated “spectacle” trials, the media also neglects other equally important cases people may not give as much thought to otherwise. So before you get sucked into the next Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox or O.J. Simpson-style vortex, remember that there are news stories that are off the radar and just as worthy of public scrutiny as the spectacles the media serves up to us on a silver plate.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]