The Return of Tabloid TV

I thought I was having a bad dream. But there was Gerry Spence doing something I had seen him do before: talking about something he knew nothing about. It was then I knew we were in for an OJ replay.

The arrest of Robert Blake for the murder of Bonnie Lee Bakley last week was a dream come true for all of the cable talk channels. You can bet we will be seeing a lot less of Yasser Arafat, Osama Bin Laden, and even Donald Rumsfeld in the weeks ahead. Instead, we will be seeing more of Alan Dershowitz, Johnny Cochran and the aforementioned Mr. Spence.

The reason I can predict all this with a reasonable degree of certainty is that the cost of covering a distant war far exceeds the pricetag of "wall to wall" celebrity trial coverage.There is little need for a correspondent in Kabul or Jerusalem if you can replace them with talking heads and achieve better ratings to boot.

Speculation began to run rampant almost immediately. Will Robert Blake testify in his own defense? Will cameras be allowed in the courtroom? Who are the informants and will they be offered immunity?

Yes, we will be seeing the return of the "know-nothing" commentators. Many will appear knowledgeable, but some will have actually missed the entire day's court proceedings on account of their own trials or teaching schedules. At times, the ability to impart actual information takes a back seat to the chance of getting face time in front of a TV camera. As Santa Clara Law professor Gerald Uelman has noted, "Sophisticated viewers may realize these pundits are talking through their hat, but most won't."

It is for this reason that USC Law Professor Erwin Chemerinsky and Loyola Law Professor Laurie Levenson drew up a set of "commentator ethics" a few years ago. The number one thing to avoid, the good professors noted, was making predictions about a jury verdict. Put another way, don't prejudge the guilt or innocence of the accused. Yet on the day after Mr. Blake's arrest, ex-judge Catherine Crier - now a Court TV anchor - violated this most basic edict by dismissing Mr. Blake's alibi defense before having actually heard it.

Some will say this sorry spectacle is missing something the Simpson trial had - namely, the racial angle - and for this reason it will not dominate TV news coverage. Who are they kidding? Celebrity murder trials make TV news executives salivate. In fact, this case may turn out to have something that was missing in the O.J. saga. That something is what I call "The Jerry Springer Element." Apparently, Bonnie Bakley was a confessed celebrity stalker who sent revealing pictures of herself to lonely men hoping to receive money in return. So the absence of race should be more than made up for by what I will term "trailer sex." That fact, alone, should have the executives at Fox News, CNBC, CNN and MSNBC jumping fo joy.

The writer is a public interest lawyer and consumer advocate who lives in Los Angeles.


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