Law and Order: The Reality
The George Zimmerman trial resumed this week with the defense continuing its case and trying to make its point that Trayvon Martin attacked George Zimmerman and Zimmerman killed him in self-defense. Not since the Casey Anthony trial two years ago has a single court case gained so much media attention. Thanks to twenty-four hour news stations like CNN and MSNBC, American audiences get to see the whole trial played out for them in real time. Since this is my first post about the case, I will give a little background into what has previously taken place in the trial. Both the prosecutor and the defense attorneys' opening statements made headlines. The prosecutor decided to start his opening statement with an expletive filled quote made by George Zimmerman much to the chagrin of the networks carrying the trial live on the air without a delay. The defense decided to open with a knock-knock joke (“Knock-knock. Who’s there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? Good you can serve on this jury.”) Which if I was Zimmerman at that point would have fired him on the spot saying this is no joke. The prosecution then presented their case which involved an endless amount of “eye” witnesses who all shared the same testimony. They all heard noise coming from outside their home. They all looked outside and saw two individuals involved in a confrontation but it was too dark to really know who was on top, who was attacking whom, and who was screaming. The prosecution also put Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon’s girlfriend and last person to speak to him before he was killed, on the stand. She recounted her phone conversation with Trayvon. She testified that Martin told her he was being followed and then she heard him scream for help.
In fact it seems like that the telephone call to 911 is the key piece of evidence in this case except that no one can agree whether it is Trayvon yelling for help on the phone or Zimmerman. Those witnesses who support Zimmerman testify that it is his voice while those grieving for Trayvon say it is his. In today’s trial, the defense called Trayvon Martin's father to the stand, hoping to get him to admit that the voice on the 911 tape was not Trayvon's. The defense claimed that Trayvon’s father did not identify his son’s voice on the tapes when the police played the 911 call for him shortly after his son was killed. Trayvon’s father got on the stand saying that he never said it was not his son’s voice and that the police misunderstood him.
Ok so that pretty much catches you up on the goings on in the trial. Of course there is much more detail but if you are interested in just a summary of what is happening, this pretty much gets you up to speed. Which then begs the questions, “Why do we need to know and watch every second of this trial?” Also, “How does this trial constitute news?” As I watch this trial and read about the coverage two things keep going through my head: Neil Postman and The Newsroom. In Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death he laments that news programs no longer are concerned with informing the public and educating them on important issues that affect their lives but that they only care about ratings. The only way news programs believe they can obtain high ratings is by providing entertaining news stories: such as plane crashes, celebrity news, and murder trials. Postman also remarks that most news stories bear little if any effect on the mass public’s lives and that the stories are actually insignificant but because they are on the news people believe they are important.Previous high profile murder trials such as O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony could fall into this category. Though they gripped the nation, a husband murdering his wife and a mother murdering her child unfortunately are not novel developments. The George Zimmerman trial actually does have the potential to impact the country especially with regard to race relations and gun control. Unfortunately, in the news coverage I have seen, none of these issues are being addressed and focus seems to be on whether the defense or prosecution is proving its case.
The second thing that comes to mind when I watch television coverage of this trial is the HBO show The Newsroom and more specifically the episode titled “Blackout: Part 1” when the characters decide to cover the Casey Anthony trial. In one scene, Don gives an “Infotainment 101” class to the rest of the news crew about how to cover a sensationalist news story in an entertaining fashion in order to capture a wide viewing audience. When I watched the coverage of the Zimmerman trial today, this scene kept popping back into my head. In this scene, Don examines how Nancy Grace brings in experts to make commentary on the case proceedings, about the looks Casey Anthony gives, and testimony given that day. In the trial today, especially when Trayvon’s father was on the stand, the camera only focused on him, George Zimmerman, and Trayvon’s mother. The camera rarely showed the lawyers. This allowed the viewers to read the expressions from Travyon’s father (was he sincere) and Zimmerman (was he really attacked and does he have remorse for taking such a young boy’s life). CNN also brought in commentators to fill the lag time in the trial such as when lawyers approach the bench to argue an objection. It almost turned into a sporting event. The spectators watch the trial and then when something happens that needs explaining the commentators jump in to explain what just happened and interject their opinion. Then after the witness is excused the commentators come together with the moderator to discuss what just happened and give their opinions about how the case is going and where they think it is headed. The format is not unlike football when during halftime, Howie Long and Terry Bradshaw along with other former NFL players summarize the games and give their own professional opinion on the teams. One commentator I found quite hilarious (not for his comments but because of his role) was Christopher Darden. CNN had him on to analyze the prosecution’s case in this trial which I found ironic since Darden made his fame by unsuccessfully prosecuting O.J. Simpson.
I will continue to follow this trial and review how it is being covered in the media. I plan to look at how different news stations cover the story, how print media coverage differs from television coverage, and if any of the more important issues of race and gun control ever enter into the news story. Based on what I have seen so far, I am not optimistic that these national issues will ever be analyzed by the news stations (at least not on the television news stations) but I hope to be proven wrong. I would like to see network news be able to cover a high ratings story but do it the right way. I would like to see them use the trial as a backdrop to examine the larger issues instead of focusing on the entertainment value of courtroom drama with the larger issues appearing only as footnotes.. Then maybe I have been watching too much of The Newsroom. I guess I will just have to continue watching to see, so continue looking for my posts as the trial progresses.