The century of the trial

TV lawyers, trials and commentators have so amped up our expectactions that the Senate impeachment proceeding is an anti-climatic snooze.

By James Poniewozik
January 13, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
main article image

Sadly for the networks, the beginning of the Senate impeachment proceedings Thursday looked less like a judicial proceeding than an Elks Lodge initiation -- lizardy Strom Thurmond and William Rehnquist tottering above the chamber like the evil birdmen in "The Dark Crystal," 100 senators signing the register and walking off with their commemorative styluses ("We paralyzed three branches of government and all I got was this lousy pen!") and more liver-spotted white men walking down corridors than during Senior Fitness Week at a Florida mall. At last NBC, realizing what a snoozer it was stuck with, cut smartly away to "Days of Our Lives," which was smack in the middle of a courtroom interrogation scene.

Finally! A real trial! No closed-door sessions, no cloture votes, just brutal cross-examination, murder and twins! Within 30 seconds, to the relief of the impeachment-tranquilized audience, the prosecutor picked apart the alibi a witness gave for his sister ("twin telepathy," indeed!), called a shocking surprise witness and brought us to a commercial break.


In one little segue NBC captured the expectations gap in televised law today: The networks and cable have so primed their audiences with live murder trials, syndicated court-coms and legal-analysis shouting matches that they were left sweating to make the actual Senate trial of the president of the United States seem exciting. Fifty spots were available to the public at the trial's opening -- that's one seat for, say, the population of Maryland -- and barely 50 takers showed up Thursday morning. By Friday morning, Court TV had deferred the impeachment in favor of the retrial of Victor Brancaccio, "the Zoloft murderer."

That left TV news pulling out the rhetorical stops, reminding us of the time ("At the end of the 20th century") and the president's name ("William Jefferson Clinton stands trial"). Bernard Shaw, Cokie Roberts, et al. murmured about how "real" the process became once Rehnquist donned that goofy spaceman robe and the senators took the oath. And I'm sure, sensitive dears, that they really felt it, but they may be the only ones in the country who did. See, there really is a "cynicism gap" between the public and the Washington press corps. The press isn't cynical enough. They're the only Americans capable of this kind of embarrassing, greenhorn civic wonder anymore.

But while the proceedings themselves may be ratings death, they're welcome in the burgeoning field of TV law. We Americans, after all, don't care much for deliberation. We weasel out of jury duty, we resent jurors who award multimillion-dollar settlements. But damn, do we love judgment! We want somebody to make a freaking decision! We want somebody to rule our enemies out of order! And today's legal programming gives us judges aplenty. Much critical notice has recently gone to the high-octane Solomaniacs who fill the daytime schedules -- the hectoring Judge Judy, the mugging Ed Koch, the excitable Mills Lane -- but the heart of the cable docket remains the legal analysts who with the Senate trial received their biggest boost since 1995.


The Simpson trial was such a gift to television that one wished it could never end, and, obligingly, it didn't. Its principals just moved on to new careers and personas: Last week on Roseanne's talk show, for instance, Johnnie Cochran clowned around in a mock trial against Leslie Abramson, with Roseanne as the judge, and joked, "If the dress is a mess, you must confess!" -- Johnnie Cochran imitating Rep. James Traficant (who coined the joke last summer) imitating Johnnie Cochran.

As for the case itself, it just adopted new agons. In TV law, there is really only one eternal trial -- the prosecution vs. the defense -- and when one scrimmage ends, the principals simply apply their rationalizations to the next: Thus CNN's Greta Van Susteren, for instance, moved from capably spinning for Simpson to capably spinning for Clinton. While the differences between the two parties are often undetectable, the prosecution and the defense are always polarized, and they can stand in for classic conflicts -- black vs. white, Republican vs. Democrat, Mars vs. Venus. You can pick one side and stick with it -- and except for prime-time legal tear-jerkers, as a country we tend to be prosecution -- but fence-jumping is allowed and easy (notably from anti-O.J. to pro-Bill; Ken Starr may not have made Clinton into a black president, but, even more amazingly, he made white Americans into a black jury).

The newest, and impeccably timed, entry into the legal-show sweepstakes is MSNBC's "Judge and Jury," which debuted in December just after the impeachment vote. The "judge" is Burton Katz, a preacherly man who waves his arms during on-air disputes like he's landing a plane and who already carries the easy, amiably pissed-off demeanor of a pro like John Gibson. In a faux courtroom festooned with law books, a black cloak and tasteful glass bowls (is there an MSNBC staffer paid to scour the estate sales of Redmond, Wash., for on-air tchotchkes?), Judge Katz interrogates a prosecution and a defense rep, each in a cute little mini witness box. The tête-à-tête setup makes the show more confrontational than forebears such as CNN's "Burden of Proof," aided by Katz's goading: "I can see Paul Rothstein there -- he's champin' at the bit!" Good doggie! Bite! Bite!


And the "jury"? It's you, my friend, for like most MSNBC programs, "J&J" is heavy on interactivity -- polls, questions of the day, phone calls, chat rooms. MSNBC is the loneliest network. It doesn't want you merely to watch it; it wants you to hang out with it. It wants you to talk to it. It wants you to lend it a hand. And the chat room crowd obliges happily, cheered on by Katz, who constantly reminds us how involved, how loyal MSNBC viewers are. "We have great online chatters," Katz says. "We're so proud of them" -- while online, GEO volunteers, "How many here THINKS or SUSPECTS Clinton to be a coke user? Answer me that?!" (Etiquette guide for future visitors: "DON IMUS LOOKS LIKE A SHRIVELED PENIS" will get you kicked out of the "J&J" chat -- the word "penis" evidently having no place in a Clinton-trial dialogue -- but implicating the president in murder or line-snorting is apparently cool.)

The few viewers who stayed with Court TV after O.J. learned that live trials are dull affairs with long delays and tedious questions, and many don't even involve spacey blond houseboys. MSNBC gives us the law as we imagine and wish it to be: something like "Jerry Springer" with classier antagonists and nicer clothes. Katz even closes his show with a Springer-style "word from the bench": Friday, he argued breathlessly for a full impeachment trial with witnesses. "The crucible of cross-examination from which the, the truth emerges, that's what's the critical part of the, the American judicial process ... And you know, all of you online chatters were absolutely, were virtually unanimous in this!"


"Remember Vincent Foster!" an online chatter added.

It's almost sad to see what an anachronism "Burden of Proof" has become in comparison. While MSNBC wants you to like it, hoary CNN still wants you to respect it. Thus, for instance, its broadcasts look like they issue from Mount Olympus, all white Federalist columns and heavenly blues, while MSNBC looks like Starbucks would if it were a broadcast network. On "Burden of Proof," Roger Cossack and Van Susteren host a half-dozen legal professionals seated in a box that is probably meant to make them look like a jury but instead makes them resemble the council of gods from the old Saturday-morning series "Shazam!" And though "Burden" makes a good effort at striking sparks off its guests, ultimately its format is too Socratic, and Cossack and Van Susteren not combative enough, to match "J&J." How top-down. How totally 1995.

Both "J&J" and "Burden" do a decent job of briefing lay viewers on specialist terms. But they also show how much common legal grounding modern cable viewers are assumed to have. A preliminary Senate vote on whether the alleged offenses are impeachable, we kept hearing, "is like a motion for summary judgment."


Oh, right! One of those! For much as we profess to hate them, we're all lawyers today. Most of all journalists, who now depend on the law to push them to heights of excess. Reporters might have loved to unearth the Monica Lewinsky affair, for instance, but a government flatfoot scooped them. More important, the inexhaustible, unsleeping legal system turns gossipy flare-ups into full-fledged sagas, turns scandals into cases; a trial is the difference between, say, a fleeting Hugh Grant episode and a Woody-Mia-scale conflagration that just keeps on giving. And extreme-law shows like "Judge and Jury" are returning the favor by making lawyers into stars and legal conflict even more telegenic. The law, as Charles Dickens wrote, may indeed be an ass. But that won't keep TV producers from lining up to kiss it.

James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

MORE FROM James Poniewozik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------