Monday, July 11, 2011

Mobs, the Media Marketplace, and Justice

America knows Casey is gulity of muder.
I am blissfully ignorant of so much in our popular culture.  Not that I don't attend to it, mind you.  I keep my ear to the ground to listen for the hoofbeats of the rumbling herd.   It makes for better preaching, and better bloggery.  But personally?  I try to remain as emotionally distant as possible from the endless stream of macro-high-school-psychodrama that passes for public discourse in our celebrity culture.

You know of what I speak.  When a tabloid refers to someone by their first name, like they're the popular girl in high school or the girl with the bad reputation, people who you know about but you don't really know?    When we hear the sly whispers about Kim or Rachel or Angie, it's feeding that eternally adolescent self, that self that wants to remain forever fifteen and part of the scuttlebutt.

It generally doesn't bother me, until it starts mattering.  And where it starts mattering is when it starts nosing it's way into the real.   Most recently, I am troubled that my 10 year old knows who Caylee Anthony is.

The recent coverage of the trial of Casey Anthony crossed a line, one that has been crossed and recrossed many times in American history.  That line is the conflation of justice with infotainment, as market-driven media finds the most salacious and outrageous story possible, then drives that narrative to make it a central thread in our collective adolescent chatter.  We like the hum and puzzle and outrage of a good courtroom drama.  So what if it's real?

But our system of justice is not CSI.  It is not Judge Judy.  It's a real thing, one that rests in the hands of 12 jurors and our adversarial system.  When a trial becomes a public event, as this trial has become a public event, we have to ask why.  There are several legitimate reasons.

First, a trial can involve a public figure, someone with prior standing in our culture.  A politician who is corrupt.  A businessperson who is corrupt.  Lindsay Lohan, or potentially, Lindsay Lohan again.  Then, we already have some interest.

Second, a trial can involve a question of constitutional law that will ultimately impact the broader thrust of American jurisprudence.  Like, say, whether a corporation is a "person," or whether the government's right to eminent domain allows it to seize property for the sole purpose of maximizing tax revenues, or whether that white dress is appropriate courtroom wear.   ExxonMobil is just such a hussy.

Third, a trial can involve an act that had significant national ramifications, like the Oklahoma City bombing.

But this trial?  It meets none of those metrics.

Though tragic in the way that any death is tragic, it was a crime of no particular significance.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, had Caylee been African American, we'd not have heard a peep about it.  It's just entertainment, filling the same role in this era of the 24 hour news cycle that soap operas filled in the 1950s.

Worse yet, it unsubtly undercuts our system of jurisprudence.  When a tele-prosecutor aggressively argues a case against an accused in front of the court of public opinion, the actual know, with the real judge, real prosecutor, and more importantly, real defense and real delegitimized.  The measure of reasonable doubt, in which the burden of proof rests strongly on the prosecution, is not something that tee-vee muckrakers feel obliged to attend to.  It doesn't get ratings.  Extreme outrage gets ratings.  And ratings mean revenue.

Supreme Court Justice David Souter once said that for the sake of its integrity, our system of justice must be neither a political institution "...nor part of the entertainment industry."

It's clear, in this new media era, that we're wandering further across that line.