On Monday evening, I watched several episodes of Trial by Media, a new documentary series. On Tuesday morning, before I was even awake the President of the U.S. rage-tweeted about a cable TV news personality, asking, “Did he get away with murder?” That wasn’t a metaphorical flourish. He literally meant a murder.
In these anarchic times it’s hard to keep up with issues related to “media” and “trials.”
Trial by Media (new on Netflix) is about what it says, but also, it isn’t. Exactly what it aims to say, or prove, is unclear. If it aims to indict “the media,” it fails. All it indicts is human nature and human frailty.
The six-part series, which has George Clooney and CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin as producers, offers six separate true-crime cases in which the media, mainly TV, helped sculpt a narrative about a trial. That seems to be the real point – to show that sound-bite summaries of sensational or sensitive cases were wrong. That’s not a heavy-duty or scathing censure. Besides, the series seems a bit out of date, concentrating as it does on cases from the 1980s and 1990s when tabloid TV was at its height.
The first case tackled is known as the “talkshow murder.” In 1995, The Jenny Jones Show taped a segment about “secret crushes,” in which it was revealed to one Jonathan Schmitz that anther man, his acquaintance Scott Amedure, had a crush on him. Mere days later, Schmitz shot and killed Amedure, telling police he was embarrassed by the revelation. The segment never actually aired on TV. Later, the Amedure family sued the Jones show for negligence and that trial was televised.
It was chaotic, real courtroom drama, heavily covered by national and local news. The episode about the case is equally chaotic. There is no narrative strand, no sense of what is actually being probed, apart from the original, ill-advised and cheesy set-up on the Jones show. The Amedures won a court victory, were awarded millions but that was overruled by another court. There might be a sobering lesson in there, but it doesn’t emerge in the program
By far the most gripping episode, and one with a truly chilling tone, is “Big Dan’s.” It covers the infamous gang-rape of a young woman in a bar in New Bedford, Mass . When the case went to trial in 1984 and the judge decided to allow one camera in the courtroom so that it could be televised nationally, the ensuing media circus was flat-out frightening.
It was the first rape case televised in the U.S. and the judge, interviewed now, expresses deep regret at some of the shenanigans that unfolded. He was aiming for transparency, but throwing the case into the mud-filled media arena. That episode is sobering, coming as it does now, when there is far greater awareness about sexual assault and how the justice system and media handle matters these days. It’s a heartbreaker, with a genuine sense of uncovering and pointing to a terrible wrong.
Other episodes cover the case of Bernhard Goetz, branded as the “subway vigilante” in 1984; the corruption trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich; and the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was shot 41 times by New York Police at the door to his Bronx apartment.
The point of all this – rarely stated – is that media coverage sensationalizes a trial and gives the public the impression of knowing the facts. The legal arena is different from the media arena. We knew that. Besides, the Trump-era is even more unsettlingly bizarre than what’s examined here.
Finally, this column continues with a “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is Sally4Ever (Crave/HBO). There’s one season, and it’s funny in an acrid way. On the surface, it’s straightforward – a bored thirtysomething woman Sally (Catherine Shepherd) is tired of her stuffy boyfriend David (Alex Macqueen) and has a lesbian fling with the glamourpuss Emma (Julia Davis, who created the series). Hey, it’s about a woman throwing away the mundane heterosexual life and finding bliss in a same-sex relationship.
But it isn’t. Emma, a character Davis plays with furious aplomb, eventually emerges as a shallow egomaniac. Now, she is not the sociopath-lesbian figure that Hollywood movies favour. Instead she is, under the glamorous, acid-tongued surface, just a lazy, manipulative, spoiled brat. Davis is putting the British class system under a microscope here. She’s discovered a category of people who don’t really understand their situation or recognize a bigger, wider society. They’re numbed. At times, this provides opportunities for hilarious mockery.
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