July 20, 2013
Earlier this year, a federal judge, Shira Scheindlin, said this to Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker: "I don't love trials. They are not a good way to tell a story."
The judge's rather counterintuitive point was that trials are, by nature, esoteric, rambling, illogical, incoherent and, on occasion, absurd. They create nothing; they typically solve nothing; they usually reveal nothing.
Scheindlin was arguing that judicial opinions actually are where creative narratives are forged by the legal system, where stories of use to the broader society are penned. But you are not likely to see wall-to-wall cable coverage of Judge Scheindlin, or any other judge, sitting in her chambers and writing opinions any time soon. Ah, but high-profile trials, such as that of George Zimmerman in the matter involving the death of Trayvon Martin? Those consume countless broadcast hours on news and entertainment networks, with the level of exposure of the action in the courtroom rivaled only by the scores of talking heads reacting to that action and attempting to draw broader inferences therefrom.
The fundamental problem with all this is that trials are lousy places to look for those broader inferences, especially when they are pushing out so many other better options for exploration of the great American narrative.
The fetishization of these trials is hardly new, of course. It's been 18 years since The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson, which was broadcast in full on what was then the all-news station, WMAQ-AM (670), trumping all the other news of 1995. I had a long commute at the time and listened to hour upon hour of testimony. Eighty years ago, the pages of this very newspaper were filled with reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins' famous coverage of the murder trials of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, whom she later would fictionalize in the play "Chicago," just as work is no doubt underway to fictionalize the characters of the Zimmerman trial. The reason for the long-standing popularity of trial coverage is obvious: they appear inherently dramatic. They have high stakes, potent consequences, characters under extreme stress and competing narratives, and they come with a built-in dramatic structure that most people think they understand.
The exposure means that trials like the Zimmerman one become catalysts for all kinds of post-facto actions: speeches, protests, marches. They spark boycotts, as with Stevie Wonder's declaration that he will not play in Florida until the "stand your ground" law of that state is changed. But to say that trials are imperfect loci for these national moments of navel-gazing is to understate their flaws.
For example, in the Zimmerman case, it is entirely possible to abhor Florida's "stand your ground" law and to be of the view that Zimmerman was a two-bit vigilante who engaged in the most odious and devastating form of racial profiling and to be of the view that, in this case, the system worked as it is supposed to work, given that the government had a very high burden of proof in a scenario where the aggressor had injuries to display, a law that bolstered his actions and no witnesses to precisely relate what transpired. And, if the discussion were abstract, most reasonable people would agree that there should be a high burden of proof for a murder conviction. None of that is intended to justify any law or point of view and, God knows, no violent actions, but such a scenario is part of the particular world of the criminal trial. The widespread feeling of dissatisfaction with the Zimmerman verdict is hardly new; after the Simpson trial, most reasonable people believed that what had gone on in Judge Lance Ito's showboating California courtroom-studio also had little or nothing to do with the actual facts of the matter.
Heck, they believed that in Chicago in the 1920s. And, it surely seems, the higher the profile of the trial and the deeper the invasive powers of the courtroom cameras, the more likely that divergence will be the case.
So if we stipulate that trials are ill-suited to their role as reality TV, being distinct from reality, what replaces them? What should spark national conversation on matters of import, such as whether armed citizenry would be allowed to stand their ground?
It's a good question. Networks have, over the years, attempted to fill this gap by broadcasting self-created town hall meetings. But with rare exceptions (such as the great Peter Jennings' "Answering Children's Questions" on ABC News after the events of Sept. 11, 2001), those meetings typically have been populated by predictable partisans saying predictable things. Boringly. Moreover, the media landscape is now so fractured that it is impossible to ever envisage such a manufactured debate now could reach a sufficiently wide audience to really move the needle toward rational thought and change.
So what are we left with? One could make a predictable plea for deeper debating replacing frivolity in prime time, or for more serious, balanced conversation on talk radio or cable news, more media comings-together, more political inquiry — or other such arguments that the great marketplace proved long ago most Americans do not, in bulk and in practice, seem to want, when they could be watching people sweating, on the cusp of rejection. It's a plea still worth making, but that's the reality. If Judge Scheindlin ever made it to TV, it would not be by writing opinions.
We have to trust our great dramatic writers to fill that gap. I do not just speak here of the big names, as in the way Tony Kushner made so many Americans contemplate anew the life, times and ideas of Abraham Lincoln, who understood better than any other American before or after how expediency does not have to trump idealism, and who understood standing your ground to mean something very different from the ideas of George Zimmerman. And Lincoln's defining moments did not take place in a courtroom.
The likes of Kushner are crucial, but sometimes lesser writers act communally. Look, for example, at the undeniable role played by TV domestic comedies — several of them, working together over time — in the seismic change in Americans' level of acceptance of gay marriage. In many ways, this was a bigger deal than a single law in a single state, and we don't even remember who wrote those various scripts. But we see the influence of stories of ordinary but different Americans, getting along. This weekend, the widely acclaimed movie "Fruitvale Station" opened in Chicago. It's the fictionalized story of the seemingly ordinary last day of an imagined young man, based on a very real young man, who ends up being shot by a police officer at a rapid-transport station.
"Fictionalized?" you might be thinking. Sure, but likely truer, deeper and more transferable to our lives than anything that happened in any courtroom containing George Zimmerman.
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