Trial by tube

Eight weeks and 35 witnesses into the O.J. Show, it’s become clear that the Trial of the Century isn’t panning out, either as showbiz or as a supposed “service to society.”

Sure, there are millions of people around the country who now are hooked on Marcia Clark rather than Ricki Lake. But by the time the O.J. circus is finally over, viewers and broadcasters may be more than happy to consign jury trials to the slice-and-dice format of Court TV.

We’ve all been brought up with the myth that, in a democracy, the more “the people” know about their institutions, the better off they’ll be. Theoretically, that was where TV came in: Put an event in the TV spotlight- even a trial – and justice would shine.

Oh, really?

How does that explain F. Lee Bailey’s ham-handed effort to turn this into a trial about racism? How come Los Angeles cops have now been put on trial, while O J . has become an offstage prop?

And can anyone recall any other case in which both the defense and prosecution seem dependent on the tabloids or tab TV for their “hot tips”? If the audience is supposed to learn something from watching this spectacle, then here are some possible lessons:

* Jury trials are clumsy, wasteful and incapable of providing justice, and that’s why the American jury system is used by no other country in the world.

* Since lawyers have structured trials to guarantee that everyone looks foolish except themselves, the assorted cops and civil servants trundling through the proceedings are systematically humiliated – a phenomenon that hardly breeds public respect for law and order.

* The jurors, who are supposed to be the focal point of all this melodrama, have lived in a state of semi-imprisonment for almost three months, yet have heard an average of only two hours of actual testimony a day. Who on earth would want to serve as a juror after watching this fiasco?

Putting aside all these issues, one has to wonder as to the long-term impact of this trial. Talk to any knowledgeable criminal attorney or jurist about this case and you elicit the identical prediction: a hung jury. Los Angeles will have spent more than $10 million on this event, tens of millions of people will have set aside big portions of their lives to witness it, and there will be no third act!

What messages will that deliver to a society that is marginally anarchic to begin with?

The principal message, of course, is simply that the system doesn’t work either in terms of dispensing justice or as show business.

Sure, there was an astonishing opening scene – a freeway trek that will remain implanted in the folklore of Southern California. The assembling of O.J.’s legal team seemed to promise high drama – could Bailey make a comeback? Would an obviously discomfited Bob Shapiro ultimately take a walk?

Before long, however, the stuff of high drama seemed to dissolve in the morass of tabloid TV. It was as though Turgenev had written an opening chapter, only to find Danielle Steel brought in to finish his piece. All sorts of smarmy peripheral characters seemed insistent about pushing their way to center stage, ranging from Johnnie Cochran’s former mistress to Marcia Clark’s dweeb of a husband.

Taken together, all of this has been crazy-making for the nation’s TV mavens. As the trial has clunked along, ratings have gone up or down depending on the star value of the witness. The inscrutable Mark Fuhrman moves them up, a monotone Philip Vannatter brings them down. Meanwhile, established shows like “Oprah” or “Donahue” have been more affected than, say, “Ricki Lake” or “Jenny Jones” (is the trial too esoteric for their viewers?).

If the syndicators are confused, the cablers are delighted. CNN, Court TV and the E! Channel have picked up huge numbers while tab TV shows, despite their stunts, are taking hits. KTLA in Los Angeles has become the second-highest-rated station in San Diego by dint of its wall-to-wall coverage. Sidebars provide delicious opportunities for a myriad of TV spots.

The impact on radio has been similarly baffling. While L.A.’s KNX, with its all-news format, has scored by hanging in there with O.J., Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern have taken a beating. Perhaps listeners derive enough rancor from the trial to lesson their dependence on shock jocks.

What long-term changes will come from all this? It’s too much to hope for any substantial reform of the jury system, such as avoiding expensive non-trials that lead to non-verdicts.

But hopefully jurists and TV mavens alike will think twice before they propel another so-called celebrity trial into the spotlight. For as bad as the system may be, the harsh glare of TV seems to contaminate it even further.

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