Pencils, yes camera, no


THOUGH FOR years I favored cameras in courtrooms, I have concluded that the issue needs a lot more thought than people in my profession were willing to give it when the issue first arose.

The old argument went something like this. We TV journalists are no different from print journalists, and it's high time that the Fourth Estate stopped treating us like second-class citizens.

Television's position in journalism is no longer an issue. When we first fought that battle, we suffered from an inferiority complex. That's no longer a problem -- or at least not one we can hide under any longer.

When television is good, it is as good as the best of print. When television is bad, it's worse than the worst of print, which brings us to Judge Lance Ito's courtroom.

"Open to the public" doesn't have to mean "open to cameras."

Let us in to observe and report. We're reporters and that's what reporters do. But letting cameras in can turn a courtroom into a movie set.

In Los Angeles we've got a movie in which the lead speaks no lines, a blond bombshell turns out to be a man and the $5-a-day extras in the jury box keep walking off the set.

And as David Margolick wrote in the New York Times, to many viewers "the case seems clogged with . . . long-winded lawyers playing" to the camera.

Would freedom of the press suffer if there were no camera? Would TV journalists again be second-class citizens if they had to go back to pad and pencil to cover this trial? No.

Some will call me a turncoat. They'll say, how can you even suggest such a thing? Who are you to interfere with the public's right to know?

Where is it written that the public has a right to know? And isn't the issue really the public's supposed right to watch?

If the public has a right to watch what goes on in any courtroom, why doesn't that final arbiter of all of our rights, the Supreme Court, let us put a camera in its courtroom?

And even if television does have the right to go anywhere it pleases, who says it has to exercise that right, willy-nilly, come what may? It doesn't have to stick its nose into every nook and cranny.

An occasional door closed in our face would be good for our souls and might even get some of us off our backsides and back to reporting instead of watching.

Has television done irreparable damage to the criminal-justice system by laying claim to a camera in the courtroom? I doubt it.

Has it made itself look foolish and unfeeling by turning a murder trial into television's longest running entertainment special? I think so.

Some things are best left untelevised -- such as the O.J. Simpson, Lance Ito, Kato Kaelin, Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark and Rosa Lopez Show, which threatens to run longer than "The Fantasticks" and where 99 percent of what sees the light of day should be on the cutting-room floor or, at best, in a reporter's wastebasket.

Don Hewitt is executive producer of "60 Minutes."

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