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With Zimmerman Trial, TV Lawyers Limbo Under the Bar

Led by HLN's Nancy Grace, TV pundits have exhibited little shame - and less restraint

Shakespeare’s misunderstood line “let’s kill all the lawyers” can be viewed somewhat differently in this summer of the George Zimmerman trial, as attorneys crowd the airwaves, making their bids to become the next Nancy Grace.

There might be a more unseemly, nauseating spectacle on TV than HLN — where it’s not uncommon to tune in and find a half-dozen so-called legal experts yelling at each other — but it’s hard to think of where.

All the cable news networks have seized on the trial of Zimmerman, accused of murdering Florida teen Trayvon Martin, with its obvious racial and political overtones. As the Huffington Post observed with rare understatement, during an especially busy stretch in the news — including the tragic death of firefighters in Arizona, turmoil in Egypt and Nelson Mandela’s failing health — “the cable news networks have proven extremely committed to the George Zimmerman trial over the past week, often to the exclusion of nearly every other major story.”

Thursday’s closing argument raised the already simmering coverage toward a boil, and evoked the customary empty-headed questions from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who kept asking a panel of lawyers to guess at what is “going to resonate with these women,” referring to the all-female jury.

Right. Because talking-head attorneys have been so accurate in predicting how juries are going to decide in the past.

Still, nothing has been more noxious than the wall-to-wall attention from HLN, the network formerly known as Headline News, whose toxic avenger, Grace, and Jane Velez-Mitchell often seem to be impersonating someone trying to project to the back of a high-school gymnasium without a microphone. HLN is so determined to stay connected to the case, it leaves photos and “GEORGE ZIMMERMAN ON TRIAL” inset in the screen even during commercial breaks.

Grace has become a poster child for this sort of overheated coverage, turning every criminal case into a trial of the century.

“Bombshell tonight! In the last hour, the courtroom explodes!” Grace thundered as her program began Thursday, which would be news, if she didn’t pretty much begin her show that way every night.

Grace’s relative success has reverberated through the media, while dangling an intoxicating lure in front of every would-be TV host with a legal degree. Yet in the crush to allocate blame for this sorry state of affairs, let’s not give a pass to the lawyers themselves, dutifully lining up to pontificate on TV — having passed the bar, apparently, just so they could lower the bar on public discourse.

In the courtroom, lawyers are historically advised not to ask a question if they can’t anticipate the answer. On TV, ignorance is never viewed as a reason to stop running one’s mouth, what with so many hours to fill.

As always with TV punditry, there’s seldom a penalty for being wrong, only one for being boring. Be provocative, be argumentative, but by all means, have an opinion about absolutely everything.

Before anyone steps up to defend these boorish barristers — after all, that’s what the networks want — here’s a thought: Whatever happened to saying no? No one is obligated to appear on television. If a booker calls up and asks you to participate in a tabloid-tinged roundtable, try taking a rain check.

Because the truth is these programs ultimately have very little to do with the law, and everything to do with showbiz and gladiatorial-style verbal combat. Watch HLN with the sound down, and you could easily confuse it with ESPN, down to the instant replays and endless recaps of the day’s big moments. Throw in the argue-about-anything mentality of talkradio, and you have a prescription for unrelenting inanity.

Seriously, would you want to hire a lawyer you saw engaged in a shouting match on HLN?

The supply of willing attorneys, however, looks pretty near inexhaustible. That’s because in our society, the mere act of being seen on television conveys credibility and authority. And many of these legal eagles have no problem wildly speculating not only about the case’s outcome, but the potential fallout depending on the verdict.

Thursday afternoon on HLN — not long before Velez-Mitchell broke up a scrum by yelling, “Frank, shush!” — an attorney named Darren Kavinoky maintained a part of the prosecutor’s closing argument “reeks of desperation.”

Oh it reeks, all right. But if you want to locate the source of that aroma, you might want to start by looking in the mirror. And with apologies to Shakespeare, in this case the fault really is in our stars — just the made-for-TV kind, and those lining up to join them.

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