With a title like Trial by Media, you’d naturally expect Netflix’s true crime series—executive produced by CNN and The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin, alongside George Clooney and Grant Heslov—to focus on the multifaceted ways print and TV reporting affected, for better or worse, high-profile legal cases. Like a student term paper that sporadically forgets to relate all of its evidence to its thesis statement, the streaming service’s latest doesn’t always stick to that guiding objective. And yet at its best, this six-part affair does serve as a routinely dispiriting portrait of the press’ impact on the process of determining guilt and innocence—and, specifically, the various means by which the media warps and undermines the wheels of justice.
Unsurprisingly, Trial by Media (debuting May 11) benefits immensely from an avalanche of fantastic archival material. There are scant dramatic recreations utilized by the docuseries because, in most instances, they aren’t necessary—bountiful clips from morning and evening news programs, radio shows, and Court TV (as well as newspaper headlines) afford a gripping up-close-and-personal view of these sagas of treachery and tragedy. Better still, though not every celebrity subject opts to sit down for the cameras, there’s a high level of participation from key players in its six stand-alone episodes, each of which underlines a different aspect of the media’s influence on the criminal justice system.
Nowhere are those ties more direct than in the premiere chapter about the 1995 murder of Scott Amedure by Jonathan Schmitz after the latter was brought onto The Jenny Jones Show by the former, who wanted to surprise Schmitz by confessing his romantic feelings for him. Taking place during a decade in which trashy talk shows were all the rage, this homicide felt almost inevitable—the culmination of an era that saw Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, Ricki Lake and their ilk exploit people’s tumultuous personal lives for ratings. Schmitz’s criminal defense involved trying to pin the blame for his actions on Jones’ on-air shock tactics, and when that didn’t pan out, a subsequent civil suit took aim at the sensationalistic program—raising the fundamental question of where one draws the line between wrongdoing of an ethical and legal sort.
Even more scandalous figures take center stage throughout Trial by Media, such as Bernhard Goetz, New York’s “Subway Vigilante,” who earned national notoriety in December 1984 for opening fire on four African-American youths he suspected were about to mug him. Goetz’s transformation from Charles Bronson-esque hero to potentially racist wacko took place on the front pages of the city’s tabloids. Goetz’s taped confession complicated the public’s sympathy for his actions, which he claimed were the byproduct of a government that had failed to make city subways and streets safe for its citizens, and thus had forced him to act as he did. Blaming systemic shortcomings for one’s own debatable behavior is also a prime facet of “Blago!”, the series’ closing episode about disgraced Chicago governor Rod Blagojevich, who went on a full-scale media blitz to argue that the corruption he was charged with committing—in particular, trying to sell President Obama’s vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder, for personal gain—was merely an example of business-as-usual political horse-trading.
Taking offensive media action to alter an unflattering narrative was central to Blagojevich’s defense strategy, and though it didn’t help him during his second trial—when he was sentenced to 14 years behind bars—it did ultimately set him free, via his wife’s successful Fox News pleas to President Trump to pardon her husband. It also worked wonders for HealthSouth founder and CEO Richard Scrushy, accused of cooking his firm’s books and pocketing untold millions in a massive fraud scheme. Realizing that his extravagant lifestyle didn’t jibe with his pleas of innocence, Scrushy took the fight to the Feds, both by hiring in-your-face press-savvy attorneys Donald Watkins and Jim Parkman, and by producing his own weekly TV talk show that allowed him to remake his image as a dogged man of faith—a tack that was furthered by his embrace of the African-American religious community, with whom he sought to align himself as a victim of unjust persecution.
Trial by Media is consistently efficient, eloquent and free of formal gimmickry. Nonetheless, it stumbles slightly—in terms of its overarching goal—with its installment on Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant who in February 1999 was shot 41 times by four NYPD officers, if only because there’s a tenuous link between the media’s coverage of that incident and the not-guilty verdicts that were eventually handed down to the indicted.
“The positive aspect of that pioneering decision was that it revealed, to the country, the despicable victim-shaming that rape survivors endure when they seek justice.”
More coherent is the series’ critique of letting cameras into the courtroom, which dominates its fifth episode. “Big Dan’s” concerns the heartbreaking fate of a young New Bedford, Massachusetts, mother who, in March 1983, was gang-raped by four men in a bar while other male patrons watched and cheered. That assault was monstrous enough on its own. But compounding matters, the trial of that quartet—as well as of two witnesses who didn’t offer the victim any assistance—became the first one ever broadcast, in its entirety, on TV, on then-fledgling CNN.
The positive aspect of that pioneering decision was that it revealed, to the country, the despicable victim-shaming that rape survivors endure when they seek justice. Yet the exploitative nature of turning one woman’s nightmare into soap opera-y TV is hard to ignore, or to stomach, as are numerous old clips of everyday Massachusetts citizens stating that the woman, for whatever reason, was asking to be raped and therefore deserved what she got. That people not only held such opinions—but felt comfortable declaring them for all to hear, as recently as 1983—is a stark reminder of the continuing need for today’s #MeToo movement. And in that regard, Trial by Media illustrates another vital function of the media when it comes to shaping public perception about moral and legal issues—namely, that it provides a lasting document about who people are and were so that the past isn’t forgotten or whitewashed, and so future generations can hopefully learn from their ancestors’ mistakes.