The Right Way to Cover the Next Trial of the Century

From a Washington Post column by Hugh Hewitt headlined “Here’s the right way to cover the next trial of the century”:

“Trial of the century” was a pretty elastic phrase in the sensationalist 20th century. The question of Darwinism at the trial of Tennessee teacher John Scopes briefly wore the mantle, but so did the trial of thrill-killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the trial of Lindbergh kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann, and the trial of atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

But they were all eclipsed by the unprecedented mass coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial following the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, a saga that began in 1994 and ended in 1995. The justice system could not survive its marriage with celebrity coverage. O.J. walked.

The coming trial in Georgia state court of former president Donald Trump and as many as 18 co-defendants will be the first “trial of the century” of the new millennium, and the time to think about media coverage is now. Unlike the other Trump trials, this one is almost certainly going to be televised and might be the first among Trump’s upcoming legal battles.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee has no idea what is about to swamp him, because, well, nobody does. But he could learn a lot from a phone call to retired Los Angeles judge Lance Ito, who presided over the “trial of the century” that held Americans spellbound in the mid-’90s. Somehow, Ito managed to keep his life on a pretty even keel despite the unprecedented nature of the proceedings.

I think one of Ito’s wisest decisions was to anoint non-daily journalists, among them Dominick Dunne of Vanity Fair and author Joe McGinniss, to occupy reserved seats through the protracted Simpson trial. Old-school reporters were not pleased. But non-daily writers told the story on a grand scale worthy of the spectacle. Dunne, in particular, became the leading troubadour of that bizarre cultural moment. He wasn’t a lawyer, but that didn’t matter because he quickly grasped that the trial wasn’t just about the slaughter of two innocent people in cold blood. It was about fame and jealousy and sex and, above all, race. Dunne and his editors grasped that here was a drama that all the country would be watching — and did, thanks to Court TV. Dunne filled the role of interpreter to cultural elites.

Having blessed non-daily journalists with access, Ito could reasonably hope that these influential voices would not trash his every move. Given his thankless job as arbiter of a sprawling case that will cause political friction from Day 1, McAfee needs his own skilled interpreters to frame his decisions and give sweep to the proceedings. Perhaps a dozen writers could be tapped for the “reserved rows,” provided they commit to being there nearly every day for as long as it takes. Total immersion in the specifics, plus writing talent and a smooth television style, can make this pool into a sort of Greek chorus for the drama.

The Post has begun to sketch out the complexities of the Georgia cases, which are likely to be the most prominent vehicle for the drama of a former president on trial. At least two of the defendants have petitioned McAfee for expedited trials, as is their right. Other defendants might prefer to slow their proceedings down if they can. Regardless, the first courtroom collisions are not far off, and America’s media will be quickly saturated.

An explosion of media outlets over the past three decades assures that Trump’s trial will dwarf Simpson’s in terms of television hours and total keystrokes. Do not be surprised if TV networks are already shopping for properties near the courthouse and locking up telegenic local lawyers and retired judges to offer analysis of Georgia law. There are some fine legal analysts already speaking to the four Trump indictments from inside the Beltway and Manhattan, but Atlanta is going to become center stage, because it appears to be first in line and most likely to be televised.

Nominees for the reserved seats? Perhaps the judge should take applications. My dozen nominees reflect the intense ideological divisions already obvious in the media; a variety of viewpoints will be more credible than any attempt at bland moderation. Ben Shapiro and Barbara L. McQuade are lawyers and skilled pundits who would put right and left in the courtroom.

Isaac J. Bailey and Jane Coaston are talented essayists who, as Black Americans, can bring important perspectives to what is unsaid about race in the proceedings. If New Yorker magazine veteran and former dean of the Columbia Journalism School Nicholas Lemann is available, send him down. Ronan Farrow, fresh from profiling Elon Musk, is an obvious nominee, as is the see-all-miss-nothing conservative writer Matthew Continetti.

Is it an honor or a curse to nominate current and former colleagues including Townhall’s Mary Katharine Ham, The Post’s Ruth Marcus and Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times? Add the versatile veteran Evan Thomas and farmer-philosopher Victor Davis Hanson (to assure two very readable books relatively quickly) and you have a dozen gifted writers who will see the proceedings from as many intelligent angles — and know how to share their insights with the cable world of talking heads.

So, Judge McAfee, give us a big and diverse set of eyes on the proceedings, please. Everyone will benefit.

Hugh Hewitt is a nationally syndicated radio host on the Salem Radio Network. He is also a professor at Chapman University School of Law, where he has taught constitutional law since 1996.

Speak Your Mind