It's not surprising that suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui wants his conspiracy trial televised. He joins a long list of infamous defendants, including O.J. Simpson, who thought they had a better shot at a fair trial with cameras in the courtroom.
It's also not surprising that the U.S. Justice Department holds a different view. Government attorneys have argued that concerns about national security and witness protection take precedence over arguments favoring the public's right to know.
Who, after all, would want to testify against Moussaoui knowing that bin Laden and Co. were watching? For that matter, what judge would invite such hostile scrutiny?
Even though federal law bans cameras from federal criminal trials, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema scheduled a hearing for today to decide whether to make an exception in Moussaoui's case. Court TV also has petitioned the court for camera access.
This is yet another one of those party-pooping occasions when our national security has to prevail over our national appetites. Believe me, no one is more disappointed than I.
Without pride, I confess that I am one of those Americans who was umbilically attached to the television set throughout the O.J. Simpson trial. I barely spoke to my family for nine months. "You're what? I'm in the middle of a trial here. Order a pizza, for crying out loud!"
I'm also a member of the Holy Order of the Immaculate Media and am, therefore, supposed to believe in the First Amendment and nothing but the First Amendment, so help me Steven Brill. And I do, with reasonable exceptions, including this one.
The fact is, cameras in the courtroom do not ensure justice; they ensure entertainment. Introduce a camera into any setting and everybody starts acting. Cameras may not steal our souls, as some primitive peoples believe, but they surely do inhibit our good sense, especially regarding our constitutional rights.
The framers of the First Amendment weren't imagining cameras in the courtrooms when they guaranteed an open and free press, any more than they were envisioning Internet pornography when they secured the future of free speech.
They erroneously assumed that we'd have at least as much sense down the road as they did two or so centuries ago.
Advocates of cameras in the courtroom offer some curiously specious arguments. Cameras not only ensure public access to trials, they say, but they also provide educational opportunities for Americans to learn how the judicial system works. This is true in the abstract, but in practice it's the same as saying we buy Playboy for the articles. Sure, there's text, but that's not why people buy the magazine.
Were education truly our concern, we would film trials for post-verdict viewing. The fact that almost no one other than O.J. Simpson and supporting cast would ever check out "The O.J. Simpson Trial" tells us everything we need to know about the so-called educational imperative.
Yet advocates of cameras in the courtroom pretend to all sorts of lofty motivations. One of Moussaoui's attorneys argued that "televising the trial will ensure that the entire world is able to watch the proceedings and will add an additional layer of protection to see that these proceedings are fairly conducted."
Surely no one believes that. With a room full of print and broadcast reporters as well as attorneys, court officials, a dozen or more jurors and alternates, court reporters and a judge, we can't be assured of a fair trial? Since when did the camera become the 13th juror?
In high-profile cases, cameras more likely impede than ensure justice to the extent that they interfere with the performance of judges and attorneys. There's no better example than Judge Lance Ito, whose lack of control over the Simpson trial was owing in part to his apparent belief that he was Spencer Tracy filming in Nuremburg.
When Susan Smith came to trial in Union, S.C., on charges of killing her two sons by letting her car roll into a lake with the boys inside, the Simpson trial was in full swing. Noting the circus atmosphere of Simpson's trial, South Carolina Judge William Howard threw cameras out of his courtroom.
Reporters commuting between the two trials remarked on the difference. Howard was clearly in control of his courtroom, and the trial advanced quickly. Did the absence of cameras make a difference?
"I did not realize until the cameras were gone how paralyzing they were and how much they increase the level of tension," David Bruck, one of Smith's attorneys, is quoted as saying in "Cameras in the Courtroom: Television and the Pursuit of Justice" (McFarland & Co, 1998).
Personally, I'd love to watch Moussaoui's trial. But more important than my curiosity is that attorneys and witnesses for both sides, as well as the judge, do their jobs without distraction, and that the terrorists, whoever and wherever they are, get no benefit from a system they've exploited quite enough already.