Television in the Courtroom: Mightier than the Pen?

In his Introduction, author Ronald L. Goldfarb explains that his purpose is to address all the arguments advanced against televised trials, cover the points made by proponents of televised trials, and find a sensible solution to what he believes is the fundamental issue: “How can we best blend new media technologies with our traditional and revered commitment to democracy and justice?” (p. xxiv). He ends the book with this prospective paragraph: “I expect that all the courtrooms of the future – state and federal, trial and appellate – will be equipped with cameras. I suggest that all trials should be available for broadcast – as is generally the case in most states. A publicly run, noncommercial channel, like the one in Washington state, would present all proceedings, pursuant to legal rules. Future viewers, on their sophisticated new home or office “instruments” (a new-breed computer screen or television set), could tune into any case anywhere, anytime. The archival record of all trials would be available to the public. The right to oppose the broadcast of any trial should be available to a defendant, witness, juror, or participating lawyer. The circumstances under which a judge could grant such a request could be set by the legislature or the court system itself, but all guidelines and limitations on the general presumptive constitutional right to publicize public proceedings would have to be determined ultimately by the Supreme Court. The visibility of the judicial system is in the public interest and in the overall interests of justice” [p. 188]. Mr. Goldfarb’s journey to this conclusion begins with recounting “excessively publicized criminal trials” (p. 3) in this country’s history, from the libel case of John Peter Zenger to the murder trial of O.J. Simpson (pp. 3-15). Unusual public interest in many of the cases was due to the preexisting celebrity status of the victim or the accused. For example, the fame of the advocates and the clash of cultures made the Scopes trial the center of national attention (pp. 7-8). Most often, the subject matter of the case provided the opportunity for the press to appease the public’s prurient or morbid interest. The transformation of notable trials into notorious events thus occurred long before the advent of television technology.