Criminal trials that receive widespread media coverage can be a great platform for discussing the shortcomings of American society, but the media’s coverage routinely has shortcomings itself – particularly when it comes to race. The media needs to focus on cases that clearly show problems in American society, instead of tying controversial themes into celebrity trials to bring in viewers. Though the recent execution of black Georgia convict Troy Davis is fresh in many Americans’ minds, the national interest during his trial was nonexistent. It wasn’t until after his conviction that accusations of police coercion of witnesses came out and witnesses began recanting their statements. The media then rightly jumped on the social injustice aspect of the case.
The show trial, where a societal problem is brought up and widely publicized by a court case, is not a recent development in American history. Two important show trials were the Sacco and Vanzetti murder trial, which showed the negative national perception of foreign politics, and the Scopes “Monkey” trial, which showed the conflict between religion and science in 1920s America.
Race has always been an important part of show trials. Kevin Boyle’s “Arc of Justice” details the trial of a black man named Ossian Sweet, who was accused of murdering two white men in 1920s Detroit. His story is now read on college campuses nationally and shows the true usefulness of show trials.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) backed Sweet’s case, and the “not guilty” verdict set a precedent for American civil rights.
With the anniversary of the O.J. Simpson murder trial this past Monday, we are reminded of trials such as his and Michael Jackson’s child molestation case, unjustly tagged by the media as racially charged.
These controversies worked in generating publicity – the celebrity trials became “must-see TV,” with a bet.com article calling the Simpson trial “the Trial of the Century.” A 2005 Gallup poll, shortly after Jackson’s “not guilty” verdict, found that nearly twice as many white Americans disagreed with the verdict than agreed, while the reverse was found for nonwhites. The same article states that such a divide was even greater with the Simpson trial. “Nonwhites,” as a New York Daily News article states, “backed the (Simpson) verdict by a whopping 67 percent,” while 62 percent of white Americans disagreed with the verdict.
The main point of contention to these show trials is that, despite the media playing to the racial elements of those following the Simpson and Jackson cases, neither crime the defendants were accused of was a racially charged crime. Jackson was not accused of exclusively targeting a specific race of children in court, and Simpson was not charged with a racial hate crime against his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ronald Goldman.
The media needs to do a better job in covering trials that have true merit in bringing about social change, not adding irrelevant themes to celebrity trials to raise ratings.
Andrew Madden is a senior majoring in mathematics.