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O.J. Simpson Trial Ruling to Let TV Cameras in Court Created 20-Year Mess

With a mug like this, “Good Morning America” doesn’t come knocking every day. But they did 20 years ago, seeking an interview to indignantly take issue with a column I wrote arguing that the O.J. Simpson murder trial shouldn’t allow cameras in the courtroom, before Judge Lance Ito ruled the other way.

It’s always nice to feel vindicated in hindsight. But what neither I nor anybody else could have foreseen was how much worse matters would become in charting TV’s corrosive influence on the legal system, politics and other institutions during the intervening decades.

The argument for televising the trial was a familiar one: The public has a right to see for themselves. “It provides a more accurate version of court proceedings than a third-person account can ever hope to do,” professor Jane Kirtley wrote back in 1995.

The counterpoint was — and is — that the camera is not an impartial bystander, but plays a potentially insidious role in shaping events inside and outside the courtroom, thus endangering the pursuit of justice.

The public elements of the Simpson trial began in earnest on June 17, 1994, with the spectacle of the former football star’s white Bronco slowly cruising down the freeway (even if opening arguments didn’t come until more than seven months later). Yet if those proceedings represent an outlier, remembering the frenzy that surrounded them doesn’t fully convey how dramatically the world has changed subsequently.

In cable circles, CNN, HLN and Court TV pretty much dominated the Simpson coverage, with the case having preceded the 1996 birth of Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Even those networks, however, have ceded immediacy to a Web culture that frequently reports first, and sorts out details later.

As is noted in National Geographic Channel’s upcoming documentary “The ’90s: The Last Great Decade?,” those years hastened the breakdown of barriers between news/reality and entertainment. “By the end of the 1990s, there’s no distinction between … tabloid culture and news,” notes writer David Sirota.

Flip to HLN during any high-profile trial, and witness the comical sight of multiple lawyers shouting at each other — their heads crammed into little side-by-side squares — to see how far the crime-equals-showbiz nexus has descended down this particular rabbit hole.

It’s certainly legitimate to argue that the public’s right to know and the press’s First Amendment rights represent an acceptable trade-off to the damage done to the trial process by television cameras. But there’s considerable naivete — and in some instances a self-serving dishonesty — in contending that such exposure simply holds events before the gaze of a mirror, as opposed to a distorting prism.

In a recent Huffington Post piece, author Don McNay called Ito’s decision “one of the worst moves in American judicial history,” likening its impact on trials to the way politics has been reduced to a never-ending election cycle. In the Simpson case’s wake, several jurists also concluded that the harm outweighed the benefits, certainly in setting a precedent for salacious, media-saturated trials.

“It is time for the judiciary to declare that we are not part of the entertainment industry,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Murphy, speaking for a committee of judges charged with examining the issue, told a state task force after the Simpson verdict.

It’s obviously too late to push the genie back in the bottle, and even daring to lament the current state of affairs risks sounding like an old man yelling, “Get off my lawn!” But now that the media circus never leaves town and the courtroom has become another form of inexpensive unscripted drama, it’s worth recalling the road that brought us here — and how O.J., and those who benefited from the chase and all that followed, wound up leading the charge.

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