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Allowing TV Coverage Could Change Dynamics of US Supreme Court, Argues Prof. Jeff McCall '76

March 24, 2007

Jeff McCall 2006 Blue.jpgMarch 24, 2007, Greencastle, Ind. - "Video coverage of the [United States] Supreme Court would, indeed, provide the public with insights into the judicial process it currently does not receive," writes Jeffrey M. McCall in today's Indianapolis Star. However, the professor of communication at DePauw University believes there are many potential problems to consider before cameras are placed in the nation's highest court.

McCall's column begins by reminding readers that this month marks the 75th anniversary of the kidnapping and murder of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh's baby, which resulted in the "trial of the century" of suspect Bruno Hauptmann.

"The trial became a media circus with photographers roaming the courtroom. Telegraph operators strung wires through the courtroom and clicked reports from the balcony. The legal community was aghast. A subsequent commission called the trial 'the most depressing example of improper u.s. supreme court.jpgpublicity and professional misconduct ever.' The American Bar Association responded with recommendations that courts prohibit photographing and broadcasting of trials. Those guidelines effectively kept cameras out of courtrooms until the 1970s, when pioneering states like Florida and Colorado began to open courtroom doors."

Recently, calls have been increasing for the U.S. Supreme Court to begin allowing camera coverage of its proceedings. Dr. McCall offers several reasons why that could be a change for the worse. "A key counterargument came from Chief Justice John Roberts at a judicial conference last summer. Roberts said the court should not do anything that could adversely affect its operation. He told attendees, 'We don't have oral arguments to show people, the public, how we function.' In other words, the Supreme Court's job is to determine constitutionality, not educate the public," the professor notes.

"Justice Anthony KennedyMcCall Book Viewer Discretion.jpg told the recent Senate committee hearing that the presence of television cameras would change the court's dynamics, perhaps prompting justices to speak in 'sound bites.' Without question, people do behave differently when they know they are on camera. Another question is whether the court's decisions about which cases to accept in the first place might be influenced by the awareness that the proceedings would be captured in a television limelight. Justices might think twice before accepting another case involving a sensational celebrity, as it did for Anna Nicole Smith's inheritance case last year."

A 1976 graduate of DePauw and author of the forthcoming book, Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences (due this spring), McCall asserts: "Proponents of television coverage in the courtroom say the practice is now no big deal in most state jurisdictions. That is largely true, but in the Supreme Court every case is a big deal. In addition, if media coverage adversely affects a trial in lower levels, there is always a higher court to which to appeal. That's not the situation at the Supreme Court."

The column concludes, "A broadcast industry trade publication editorialized last year that not televising the Supreme Court made its proceedings look 'sinister.' That counterproductive badgering risks a digging in of judicial heels similar to what occurred after the Hauptmann trial seven decades ago." 

Read the essay in its entirety at College News.org.

Jeff McCall recently discussed network television news programs and the struggles of CBS and Katie Couric in the Los Angeles Times and on Bill O'Reilly's nationally syndicated radio program. He also analyzed the proposed merger of satellite radio companies Sirius and XM in Toronto's Globe and Mail.

Source: Indianapolis Star

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