May 30, 2024
The only hope of achieving national acceptance of a verdict is if citizens have the opportunity to see the thing itself.

Two good writers presented opposing opinions in the New York Times last week concerning this important question: Should former president Donald Trump’s potential trial or trials —  particularly for his alleged attempt to overturn the 2020 election — be televised?

The perspectives of both writers are reasonably persuasive and worth consideration. Steven Brill argues that transparency in our justice system is embodied in the Constitution and that citizens have the right to attend trials. He notes that 19th century courthouses were constructed with capacious galleries from which the public could witness justice at work.

Brill argues that television is the “modern update” of that principle. In 1991 he started cable network Court TV, which has made state and other local trials widely available for public scrutiny.

But Brill’s primary argument is embodied in the title of his column: “Americans Will Believe the Trump Verdict Only if They Can See It.” In our deeply divided nation, in which many citizens get their news only from partisan media, Brill contends that reasonable consensus about — and acceptance of — the Trump verdict is possible only if Americans are able to see the same testimony that the jurors see, presented in the same way.

Nick Ackerman sees things differently. In “Why Televising the Trump Trials Is a Bad Idea,” Ackerman, a former assistant special Watergate prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, argues that Trump’s trials should not be televised for two reasons:

First, Ackerman refers to the O. J. Simpson trial, broadcast in 1995, contending that the judge, witnesses and lawyers on both sides couldn’t resist the temptation to “play to the viewing audience,” turning a serious murder trial into “daily entertainment.”

Second, Ackerman expresses his concern for witnesses and jurors, whose safety and well being may be compromised by a televised trial. He says that he tried a number of organized crime cases in which witnesses had good reason to fear physical retaliation from the mob for their testimony.

Ackerman says that the same concerns are present in Trump’s trials. In fact, there was nothing subtle about a threat that Trump issued last week on social media: “IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I’M COMING AFTER YOU.” Trump’s ability to intimidate witnesses and to incite his most devoted disciples should not be underestimated.

Still, Brill has the stronger argument: Every citizen, whether Trump supporter or Trump opponent, has a stake in how this trial turns out.

We might have once trusted newspapers’ or commentators’ accounts of trials, but those days have passed. The only hope — and it’s a slim hope — of achieving national acceptance of a verdict is if citizens have the opportunity to see the thing itself. In our age, this can happen only through television.

But what about witness and juror safety? It’s worth noting that the most important witnesses are already prominent — Mike Pence, for example — or probable co-conspirators such as Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman. Other witnesses and jurors may be more vulnerable. They have to be protected, and threats against them must be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

These risks have to be weighed against the risk of allowing our justice system to be subverted by intimidation and threats of retaliation or retribution. It’s going to take courage.

Suspending the rules that currently prohibit the broadcast of federal trials might be challenging. But some Democratic lawmakers have already expressed a willingness to do so. And in 2021 prominent Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and John Cornyn supported bipartisan legislation that would permit cameras in federal courtrooms. Even Trump loves television.

In fact, every American has a stake in actually seeing Trump’s trial. Let’s make it possible.

John M. Crisp is a Tribune News Service columnist. ©2023 Tribune Content Agency.

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