WASHINGTON -- In the "jury" of public opinion, a split verdict is coming in on television coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial: It was the worst thing, but paradoxically it also may have been the best thing, that ever happened to the cause of putting cameras in the courtroom.
As the Simpson murder trial moved toward a close, Americans who had seemed to be infatuated with the TV images beamed out of a Los Angeles courtroom were not convinced that their nation -- or their criminal justice system -- was the better for the experience.
It is one of the curious things about the nation's 60-year debate over filming the courts that cameras won't be welcomed routinely until the case is made that their presence will actually improve the quality of justice.
No other observer of a trial has had to prove that in order to gain admission.
At this point, with the Simpson trial fresh in America's visual memory, television's cause may have been hurt enormously by repeated broadcast scenes from a highly visible event that was maddeningly comic as often as it was serious and dignified.
Even if the issue of Mr. Simpson's guilt or innocence should someday fade in the nation's moral consciousness, the debate over television's effects on justice will go on and the Simpson trial will remain Exhibit A in that debate.
Not least among the deeply serious questions to be faced is this: Did Judge Lance A. Ito's courtroom become a theater for the absurd because the cameras were there -- or was that really Judge Ito's fault, or the fault of the lawyers?
A subsidiary question: Would this have happened anywhere but in the environs of Hollywood?
Even at the end, absurdity was still evident. Indeed, it was difficult for the TV viewer to suppress a giggle when prosecutor Marcia Clark, facing the cameras and the jury Tuesday, remarked with a completely straight face: "It is up to you, the jury, to weed out the distractions, weed out the sideshows."
And there was Judge Ito, putting on his I-am-upset mask again, pulling the plug on the cameras because what they depicted displeased him -- and then changing his mind to let the show go on.
If the Simpson trial had become a thespian's paradise, it was because of moments like those.
The jury, perhaps, did have the capacity to "weed out the sideshows" but it may be a long time before the viewing public will forget the shenanigans in which every trial participant -- from Judge Ito on -- had indulged themselves while the cameras rolled.
This, then, was the bad news for those who promote televised trials. There always has been a visceral character to the opposition to TV in the courts, often manifested by an inarticulate fear about what cameras would do to the very idea of justice.
Now, those opponents have the Simpson trial to put forth as a universally familiar case study that, supposedly, proves their point.
The trial, in short, has spelled trouble for those who favor cameras in the court. Steven Brill, the founder and chief executive officer of Court TV, the cable network devoted to court coverage, remarked at a recent news conference here:
"We knew there was going to be a time when one very high-profile trial would go badly and end up -- for all the wrong reasons -- reigniting the debate about cameras in the courts. Obviously, we have that trial [the Simpson case]."
Many in the legal community, he concedes, now have turned against cameras in the court -- blaming the electronic messenger, not the message.
David Bartlett, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, a group that long has promoted broadcast coverage of trials, said in a recent interview: "We definitely fear a backlash. We are very fearful that the O. J. Simpson case will provide a pretext for opponents of camera coverage, arguing against it and rolling back some of the progress."
The complaints that are being heard from the critics now are exactly the same that opponents of televised trials have made for years -- indeed, throughout the 40 years that the cameras-in-court controversy has focused on television cameras instead of the still-photo cameras that got the debate started 60 years ago during the Lindbergh kidnapping trial in 1935.
One judge taking part in a recent federal survey on the subject summed up the grievances this way: "The basic purpose of the courts is to render justice. The basic purpose of TV is to entertain. There are many detriments to TV courtrooms and no corresponding benefits to the judiciary. Courts should not compete with soap operas, at least not in the name of promoting justice."
The attitude is not peculiar to judges and to lawyers. Don Hewitt, executive producer of CBS-TV's investigative program, "60 Minutes," said in a New York Times column last summer: "Letting cameras in can turn a courtroom into a movie set. An occasional door closed in our face would be good for our souls. "
Whether those comments are unfair, or are exaggerated (pro-camera advocates like Mr. Brill and Mr. Bartlett insist that the critics are both wrong and out of date), the negative attitudes that have been fueled anew by the Simpson case are actually causing courthouse doors to close in the face of camera crews.
Doors closed on cameras
Mr. Bartlett can tick off the criminal trials that, in another time and in a different atmosphere, almost surely would have been televised, but now have been declared off-limits to cameras TTC apparently, in direct response to the spectacle of the Simpson trial:
* The case of Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother accused (and later convicted) of murdering her two sons by pushing the family car into a lake while the tots were strapped into their car seats.
* The case of Richard Allen Davis, soon to be tried in California for the 1993 abduction and slaying of 12-year-old Polly Klaas of Petaluma, Calif. a case so famous that President Clinton has used it to make points about the nation's fear of violent crime.
* The case of Yolanda Saldivar, facing trial later this month in Texas on charges of murdering popular Mexican-American singer Selena last March.
Reporters preparing to cover the Saldivar trial in Houston have been told that Judge Mike Westergren had barred cameras and would maintain tight control of his courtroom because "he doesn't want to end up like Judge Ito," as a fellow jurist put it in comments to the San Antonio Express-News.
Those developments, of course, came in state courts the only place where televised trials have become fairly routine, with 35 states (excluding Maryland) now allowing cameras into criminal courts. In most states, a judge has the option of keeping out cameras. And, since the Supreme Court has never recognized a right of electronic access to trials, the Constitution is no barrier to a ban on TV.
In federal court, a "dead issue"
Cameras currently are totally banned from all federal courts, including the Supreme Court, and that ban seems to have been hardened by fresh resentment generated by the Simpson case.
Last month, the U.S. Judicial Conference, policy-making arm for the federal courts, decided to put off for six months any further review of the question of having cameras in the national courts.
A three-year federal experiment with cameras was abandoned last year, and there is little hope for its revival.
U.S. Circuit Judge Gilbert S. Merritt told reporters after the Judicial Conference meeting here that the question of cameras in federal trials "is a dead issue as to criminal cases at the trial level."
"Lawyers, judges and the public have been influenced by the perception that cameras are not good for trials because of the Simpson case," he said.
With all of the new and revived assaults on cameras in the courts, it is fairly easy to conclude that the Simpson trial experience is bringing the worst of times to the era of televised trials.
Good news with the bad
Is there, then, any way to read the broadcast saga of O. J. Simpson as good news for the future of televised trials, anything to justify the sentiment of courtroom TV advocates that the Simpson case has actually opened a window of wonderful opportunity for their cause?
From a purely commercial standpoint, of course, the Simpson case has been a smash hit, a ratings bonanza that captivated many a devoted fan of the afternoon soaps and drew rave reviews even on the sports TV channels.
If it proved anything about the nation's TV viewing habits, it demonstrated beyond all doubt that the proverbial short interest span of American audiences could be cured; perhaps no other marathon event has ever held an audience so well.
And the very fact that it did hold its audience for the full year of the trial itself (plus months of preliminaries) may well mean that the Simpson case in fact has produced significant and lasting gains, too.
A long-running civics lesson
One way to look at it is that the trial has been one of the longest-running civics lessons ever put before an American audience.
Public opinion polls taken from time to time during the trial have shown that ordinary Americans believe they have been taught some valuable lessons, that they have learned a good deal about how the justice system works perhaps more than they could have learned in any other way, even by going to a courtroom in person.
That, in fact, is the highest and strongest claim supporters of televised trials make for it: The broadcasts show justice at work, and everybody benefits from that even if the quality of justice that is observed happens to be not very high at all.
K? Says Court TV's Mr. Brill: "Cameras in courtrooms are a log
ical and necessary extension of an idea as old as our country: open courtrooms."
He argues that "Court TV has done more to enhance respect for the legal system than anything else; it shows the legal system works well. Not a single judge whose case we covered is opposed to cameras in the courts. If anything, we help the process."
Court TV's anchorman, Fred Graham, says that there are "some early anecdotal signs" that trial judges are becoming more eager to have trials in their courts televised, so they can show the viewing public a better image of justice than they feel has been depicted during the Simpson trial.
Some of those judges, he said, are suggesting that "Judge Ito was the problem, not the cameras."
The Radio TV News Directors' Mr. Bartlett contends that TV in the court is "an antidote" to "tabloid publicity" of the kind that used to emerge from high-profile trials where cameras were not allowed.
Cameras, he said, sometimes may show "some of the shortcomings in the criminal justice system."
And that, courtroom TV advocates argue, should be regarded as a valuable contribution.
Lyle Denniston is a reporter in The Sun's Washington Bureau covering legal affairs.