Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I'm So Terribly Ashamed -- But Keep It Down


Perry Mason this is not. This is a scary combination of the OJ Simpson trial, whose judge also lost control before a national TV audience, and the Clarence Thomas hearings, where former boyfriends were brought in to testify about bad dates with Anita Hill.
There is just no denying it: guilty pleasures are the best.

For the past couple of days I have been glued to the set watching the bizarre courtroom of Broward County Circuit Court Judge Larry Seidlin. I'm not even sure what the proceedings are about anymore. I think it has something to do with someone named Anna Nicole Smith and who gets to decide where she might get buried.

She, apparently, was a Playboy model who came into a lot of money (or didn't) after her billionaire husband (60 years her senior) passed on a few years ago, and she too died recently, leaving as her sole heir a six-month-old daughter the identity of whose biological father is in dispute. In case you haven't heard.

But whatever prurient interest this saga might have held for a tabloid-obsessed audience all on its own, the court proceeding has turned into a spectacle of the wheels coming completely off a car whose engine is on fire as it speeds down an icy, unlit road on a moonless night with no brakes.

Witnesses are being asked to reveal their income and means of support and are volunteering that people not party to the proceedings have had vasectomies. Lawyers are angrily insisting that the court order other lawyers to sit down and not stick out fingers in their general direction.

Judge Seidlen seems to be referring to one attorney by the nickname "Texas." He has invited a witness with a stake in the outcome to give his "impressions" of the frame of mind of another witness -- who also has a stake in the outcome (these are, ahem, two of the men claiming to be the natural father of the Golden Child). Seidlin, who commandeers the questioning so completely that attorneys need to remind him to allow time so they can question their own witnesses, encouraged a lengthy line which led to how much money one witness's retired father makes.
I love this to death. But I also think that live TV coverage is exacerbating an exercise in the atrocious.

Perry Mason before the US Supreme Court this is not. This is a scary combination of the OJ Simpson trial, whose judge also lost control before a national TV audience, and the Clarence Thomas hearings, where the meaning of pubic hairs on Coke cans were debated and former boyfriends were brought in at the midnight hour to testify about bad dates with Anita Hill.

Here's my problem: I love this to death and am grateful to MSNBC for crowding out other guilty pleasures for this. But I also think that live gavel-to-gavel TV coverage is exacerbating an exercise in the atrocious. The journalist and defender of First Amendment freedoms in me can't object, the weak human in me is delighted, the grownup appalled.

I watched 80% of the Simpson trial and believe the verdict was affected by the currents and eddies created by the live TV coverage. I also saw virtually all of the Thomas hearings and think that the successful nominee, in a singular TV moment, ensured his fate by being able to stare down his attackers for all to see, and accuse them of subjecting him to a "high-tech lynching."

In a filtered news environment would the accusations of sexual harassment by Hill have resonated louder than the angry denials?

Journalists need full access to these events, but does everyone? And, more to the point, does this kind of transparency produce an observer effect, altering the outcome of proceedings that are important to real people for the sake of informing, but more likely just entertaining, the masses?

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