There are a great number of channels from which to choose on television.
Public access once touted, seems to have disappeared or greatly diminished. Some public television is informative and interesting in many areas including daily news while cable TV offers live coverage of public events and a book channel featuring authors (mainly non fiction.) The vast majority of Americans appear to get their “news”, particularly local, from major networks (MSNBC national; CNN national and international.) Recently Al Jazeera, an informative new program from Qatar, French news, Russian news which offered alternative international and national perspectives have “disappeared” – significant losses. (Obviously, the few who have satellite TV can get foreign broadcasts). Fox News is clearly identified as right wing and Trump propaganda, unfortunately displayed in many waiting areas across the country.
► Local news distorts the perspective on the administration of Justice.
European local news does not start with crimes. Local news, unless there is some notable disaster or major political event, starts with crimes and fires, with the emphasis on crimes. Every night there appears a parade of murders, rapes, assaults, grieving families, neighborhoods (with memorials) and the accused, usually a picture of those wanted by the police or those being arrested (the majority people of color). The misleading implication is of rampant crime and danger, inducing fear and the desire to lock up these violent offenders. (Sometimes as with the Central Park Five accused of murder and all the social workers in the Bronx accused of child abuse, the presentation of those arrested is dramatic but those accused were innocent.)
Probably unique to American television, there is an abundance of “crime” shows.
The crimes, mainly murder, are usually gruesome, families featured in justified grief (and usually anger), police persistence, expertise, particularly forensic, and prosecutorial success. The “war on drugs” (see my previous article on this website) and the industrial prison system are main factors in the United States’ disgraceful mass incarceration (with terrible conditions, lack of rehabilitation, no orientation toward “restorative” justice, and confinement mainly of minorities) but the atmosphere created by this media focus on crimes contributes substantially, or so it would appear. It must also be noted that movies almost always perpetuate similar images of crimes and criminals, police and prosecution, and rarely the plight of those caught in the perpetuation of the American law of crimes (particularly legislated) of the young, of the minor offenders, and the innocent.
The result of a crime obsession is the political impulse to creating legislators “tough on crime” who then pass punitive laws.
Joe Goldstein pointed out, in 1970, that police discretion to enforce the laws is a crucial factor in the law of crimes. Rapes, for example, terrible assaults although prosecutable under adequate laws (See my Women Enjoy Making Love on this website) were historically mishandled by the police, often further traumatizing and humiliating the victims, destroying rape kits before the Statute of Limitations expired (let alone not preserving for later DNA testing), discouraging reference or pursuit of prosecution, and many victims from coming forward. (Public awareness and more women on the police force appears now improving this situation in many locales.) Passing many extra laws allows for overcharging by prosecutors to exact guilty pleas which then places extra burdens on the “justice system.” Police, as a result, are given wider discretion which has often led to racial and cultural imbalance in arrests which ruin lives. Innocent errors, rather than corruption (sometimes extensive) or pleasure in exercising power, are explicable because policemen, in the public, have highly stressful jobs, with fear for their lives and safety, terrible situations demanding their attention and action, and some neighborhoods’ deep antipathy. These false steps are not commercial media fodder.
Crime shows often feature forensics demonstrating great skill and accuracy. Even since Mark Twain (Puddinhead Wilson) introduced the concept of “fingerprinting” each technical advance in identification has been hailed for its certainty. Among the many scientific advances, DNA stands out with much publicity. But it too can be mishandled in laboratories and its precision exaggerated. (Consider the OJ Simpson trial). Many people (one featured after execution in a New Yorker article; another the subject of a movie) were convicted of arson on “expert forensic testimony”, now outdated, so that present knowledge demonstrates the fires were not caused by the people convicted. The effect on jury consideration, in an atmosphere of touted forensics by brilliant investigators, is not salutary.
Monroe Freedman and others have written and documented how Prosecutors violate Ethical Rules for lawyers with almost complete impunity. Many, besides career prosecutors, take that platform in order to become Judges, politicians, and big firm (big fees) advocates for White Collar criminals (the group most likely to be deterred by imprisonment) sometimes moving back and forth. Former prosecutors perpetually publicly praise each others’ integrity, ability, and commitment.
Attorney General Barr praised Special Counsel Mueller as a “friend” while others defending Barr, after a clear a slavish Trump application letter and long history of cover-ups (e.g. Irangate) still described him as an “institutionalist” who would base his work on the Constitution. Now it is clear that he should be disbarred for public and Congressional lies.
Mueller, constantly praised by former Prosecutors before and after his report, after taking so (too?) long, actually was timid at best – giving immunity to many (eg. Pecker and Trump’s accountant), not calling any of the Trump family, accepting written denials of knowledge by “Agent Orange”, achieving few direct convictions for Russian meddling and its cover-ups, obtaining short sentences for those convicted, and not drawing conclusions compelled by the evidence.
But former prosecutors still continue with undeserved accolades for Mueller who is still silent after objecting to Barr’s mischaracterizing 4 page presentation of what his report showed in a letter to his colleague Barr.
Some District Attorneys do appear to be dedicated to justice.
In Brooklyn, the District Attorney is investigating and exonerating presently incarcerated people so that some have been released (and may be recompensed, if freedom lost can ever be). In the same Brooklyn, however, a retired Prosecutor was found to have used the same “eye witnesses” repeatedly to convict/ railroad around 10-20 defendants. Because of delays and difficulty making bail (now under scrutiny by concerned professionals) prosecutors have great power to coerce guilty pleas particularly when there are serious crimes, perhaps not provable, alleged and used for those “plea deals.” One suspects this power leads to some of the racial and cultural percentages behind bars.
In shows, the prosecutors are usually portrayed as motivated by “justice” and deep sympathy for the victims and their families.
They are not unaware of how convictions advance their careers. Most notably, TV talks shows use almost exclusively ex-prosecutors as their legal experts, adding to their prestige and pushing their perspective. There is a sprinkling of law professors, some of whom are ex-prosecutors, who have used the platform for that status. Other lawyers, particularly defense lawyers, may have broader and more imaginative ideas to offer but are not used – nor thoughtful academic scholars. Exception: Rachel Maddow has had ACLU’s Ben Wizner and Lee Galertner on her show – there must be other such instances. There are also some lawyers who mainly interview on their shows. (Of course, one should not assume that Channels such as MSNBC are “liberal” because they report a great deal of anti-Trump news. Many commentators are conservatives, disenchanted Republicans, and to the right of center. One never sees (except for movie maker Michael Moore on some talk shows) those of radical or “liberal” orientation except on some Public Television, not the “mainstream” widely watched media.)
The initial failure of the Equal Right Amendment stems, at least in part, for the television narrative with it as the single feminist movement proposition – as many movement leaders stated. At the time it was proposed, not only were there many other associated issues, but such a presentation of need was wrong given the then Supreme Court. The implication was that all those facing discrimination such as the handicapped and elderly needed their own Constitutional Amendment rather than relying on the 14th. It is notable also that the effective and aggressive Latin American feminist rejected this single issue approach. (See Feminism for Latin America by Katherine Martin.) Indeed the use of the word “people” in that Amendment indicated all the groups suffering discrimination were covered by Federal law. Rights of “aliens” were protected by that Amendment then: the right to be a lawyer (for the wife of a previous year’s clerk), the right to be a school teacher. Then came the Minnesota Twins, Burger and Blackman. I brought the obvious case of the right of an Irishman to be a State Policeman (if he had waited for his citizenship, he would have passed the age limit which had been upheld by the Court.) I and my client lost… as it appears would not have happened with the predecessor Court. If a gender discrimination suit had been presented before that earlier Court, I would argue it would have won as did the earlier “alien” cases. (If it lost, the decision would have been a compelling motive for passing the ERA). The television promotion of a single objective, I would further argue, hindered the movement and appropriate litigation.
Technology has exploded. We are presented with Smart TVs which watch us and information machines which record us. Orwellian “big brother”. Well documented are privacy and other abuses of the “social media.”
Court filings and research are now electronic which is more difficult for individual practitioners and small firms and has led to “pasting and cutting” rather than research – resulting in legal memoranda and Judicial opinions of excessive length. The move from mass incarceration and imprisonment without bail has led to ankle bracelets which not only disclose exactly where the shackled are but also are equipped with microphones (which prevent confidential communications between attorneys and clients.) The major networks present the current improvements in technology as advances (although there are more and more reports of the deleterious effect of excessive “smart” phone use, video games, and placing computer screens in front of infants.)
Press freedom offers a splendid ideal. Unfortunately, monopoly not only adversely affects the economy quite deeply but also engineers public perceptions.