The Judge and the Media: Not Ready for Prime Time

As the judge came into his office, the clerk intercepted him. "Your Honor, the TV people would like a word with you." Because his state permitted - sometimes, it seemed to him, encouraged - television coverage of trials, the judge had decided early on that living with the media was easier and probably healthier than fighting them.

The "TV people" turned out to be the normal complement of a video operator and a reporter. Like many of those the stations sent to cover the courts, neither had ever attended a real trial. Their experience with courtrooms came from movies, TV dramas, and the Simpson trial, none of which, the judge thought, gave a particularly accurate portrayal of the legal process.

Because he believed that knowledge tends to improve performance, the judge usually devoted at least some time to helping the reporter understand the issues in the case; he even assisted in the video operator's selection of the most useful camera position.

Judges and media workers do not always relate to each other cordially. News people think (often with reason) that, as a class, the judiciary tends toward aloofness, arrogance, and impatience. Judges regard reporters as ignorant dirt-diggers, consumed by a passion for irrelevance.

Having been a gainfully employed member of both groups, the judge empathized with the feelings of each.

Nicer as election nears

It is true, for example, that judges generally display toward the news media behavior that is at best condescending and at worst boorish. In states that elect judges this attitude tends, of course, to change as election nears. The underlying emotion, nevertheless, remains constant.

In fact, however, the attitude finds its wellsprings in a fundamental fear of media power. The news business is highly competitive, based on a tested belief that when it comes to government officials, the public prefers to learn of disasters (or at least difficulties) rather than of achievements.

Judges find themselves particularly vulnerable. Who cares when a judge competently presides over the conviction of a drug peddler? The newspapers never mention it.

But if the judge, applying constitutional precepts, rules that the police improperly broke into a crack house, thus requiring the court to keep the 6 kilos of cocaine in the defendant's possession from the jury evidence, journalistic perdition erupts.

Judges are, in a sense, the disposers of society's rubbish. No one notices when the sanitation department routinely collects the city's garbage. Should the service, however, for whatever reason, falter, then the complaints begin.

Going for the mustard

In treating court news, the judge thought, the media leave out the meat and go only for the mustard. It is as though the sports section carried just accounts of games the local team won in the ninth inning, omitting even any mention of all the rest.

If it is true that the administration of justice plays a significant role in the operation of our society, and if it is equally true that only through the news media - indeed, mostly through television - that the public learns about the judicial system's operation, then the idiosyncratic focus produces serious consequences.

Trivia is not always significant, although important matters may be, in current jargon, borrrr-ing. The judge remembered a well-intentioned reporter's response to a mild complaint at the lack of news attention to what the legal profession regarded as a major development.

'Just not exciting enough'

"Judge," said the news professional, "it's just not exciting enough. You folks will have to figure out a way to make the story interesting."

Now lawyers become judges from many sets of life experiences. Few of them come to the bench from show business. Once they put on their robes, the tendency to self-puffing generally mutes. "An over-speaking judge," said Francis Bacon 400 years ago, "is no well-tuned cymbal." The observation is still valid.

A court system that devotes itself to sharpening its image runs serious risks. First and foremost, the judiciary's job is deciding disputes fairly, whether these are conflicts between citizens or criminal prosecutions. Anything that deflects judicial attention and energy robs society of a precious resource.

Still, no one else will - or can - undertake the educational process. Although the robe does not fit very well on a PR man, the judge hoped he would find a way to lead the media down the right path.

"What else would you like to know about the trial?" he asked.

*Hiller B. Zobel sits on the Massachusetts Superior Court.

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