Cameras in Court Shift Focus to Personalities

by Fernando Quintero

People are still talking about the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Seminars are being held, editorials are being written and conversations are going on about everything from race relations to criticism over the judicial system.

On campus, Paula Fass and Carol Clover are two of what's certain to be scores of scholars looking into the cultural phenomenon of the trial.

Clover, professor of Scandinavian and rhetoric studies, is writing a book about cameras in the courtroom. Fass, a history professor, has been interviewed by the national press about live coverage of the Simpson trial, and she participated in a seminar about journalism ethics in court coverage.

Fass, a cultural and social historian who became familiar with the topic of filmed trials during her research of highly publicized cases of child kidnapping, including the Lindbergh kidnapping trial, said she found herself drawn to the impact the television camera had on the Simpson trial.

"My view of the O.J. Simpson trial is that celebrities alter the nature of trials," she said from her Dwinelle Hall office.

"When the assumption is made that there'll be a lot of public attention on the trial, it alters the behaviors of the judge, the lawyers and the defendant. From the beginning, everyone in the O.J. trial except the jury was playing to the television audience, influencing the context of the trial."

The camera, Fass maintains, is not a transparent eye.

"Someone is holding that camera, at certain angles, emphasizing certain aspects of the trial. The end result is that conflicts between prosecutors and defense attorneys are exaggerated tremendously, since the audience is interested in heightened emotions and the dramatics of the trial.

"Attention is focused more on the participants of the trial and away from the evidence and the trial itself."

The hammy performances given by Marcia Clark and Johnny Cochran put more of an emphasis on the messengers and less on the message being delivered to the jurors.

By having to pay attention to what the camera was filming during the trial, Judge Ito found himself in the role of editor, further adding to the awareness of the camera's presence.

Fass said one consequence of televised courtroom trials is that the distinction between news and entertainment is quickly eroded. The lines between fact and fiction also become blurred, she said.

"Trials of murder have always been entertainment. But with the camera's presence, we begin to lose a sense of what is real," Fass said. "In the O.J. Simpson case, we lost the sense that two people were murdered."

At a symposium on journalism ethics in courtroom coverage held in Los Angeles a few weeks before the Simpson trial, Fass said she was surprised that members of the press were unaware of her assertion that their presence in the courtroom shapes the outcomes of trials.

"They still stood by the idea that they're merely stenographers of the people. They didn't see the camera as an extension of themselves," she said.

Fass said one recent analysis of the Simpson case estimated the trial time could have been cut by one third if it had not been for the theatrics and pontificating brought about by the camera's presence.

With the case of Richard Allen Davis, who is accused of kidnapping and murdering Polly Klass, scheduled to go to trial in January without cameras present, Fass said the Simpson trial is already beginning to affect how judges are dealing with high-profile cases.

"(The Davis case) was another opportunity to turn a simple trial into a major media event," said Fass. "The decision to exclude cameras was made on the basis of the Simpson experience."


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