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Tuesday 21 September |
The Feast of Saint Matthew the Apostle
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Journalism Today: Telenovela or Truth?


Randall B. Smith - published on 12/05/14 - updated on 06/07/17

If I want character studies, I’ll read a novel or a good short story. What I need is someone to do the research that I have neither the time nor the resources to do. I need to know the essential facts of the case so that I can judge for myself whether Chevron is really guilty to the tune of 18 billion dollars or not. I’m eager to hold guilty corporations accountable for their crimes, just as I’m eager to hold guilty rapists accountable too. But it does no service to justice to punish those who are not guilty simply as a psychological release for our frustration at crimes we can’t (or haven’t done enough) to control.

Trials are not soap-operas meant for our amusement and titillation. Nor should we turn them into a sideshow to the great emotional debates of our age. Trials are disturbingly particular in their details, and for that reason often dull to those who haven’t the patience for such matters. But the guilt or innocence of a defendant can be discerned only after an exhaustive analysis of all those dull, boring, very particular details, just as the determination of what caused an airline crash is not necessarily to be found in the excited comments one hears in the days after the crash, but in the patient, exhaustive analysis of the information gleaned from thousands and thousands of airplane fragments, from flight data recorders, and air traffic control tracking. As any representative of the pilot’s union will tell you, “pilot error” is almost always one of the first conclusions people will jump to. It’s not that “pilot error” is never to blame; it’s simply that “pilot error” alone is rarely a sufficient explanation, and often enough “pilot error” has nothing whatsoever to do with the crash. This fact often doesn’t keep airplane manufacturers and reporters from making the claim (or at least suggesting the possibility) fairly quickly.

I do not intend to make any comment on the events in Ferguson, Missouri, either about the evidence in the case or the arguments used in the hearing before the Grand Jury, other than to suggest that it is precisely the unavoidable particularity of trials that makes them an especially poor context within which to work out our collective social grievances and anxieties. Of the thousands upon thousands of words written or spoken about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, very few of them had to do with the actual physical evidence in the case.

It is important to remember that the defendants in a trial represent no one but themselves. Indeed, they don’t even represent themselves; we ask attorneys to represent them in court. The Scottsboro Boys did not “stand for” the dangers that black men posed to white women in 1931 any more than Alfred Dreyfus “stood for” the dangers Jews posed to France in 1901. We don’t hang men like Adolf Eichmann because the Holocaust disgusts us; we hang Eichmann because he committed crimes against humanity. We need to make sure the guilty are punished. But if the men we accuse did not commit the crimes for which they are accused, and we hang them anyway as a therapy for our collective guilt, then we will have become what we condemn: murderers of the innocent.

Trials are an imperfect process. But I would rather trust that very rigorous “due process” to arrive at a clear understanding of the truth of the matter than I’d trust that awesome responsibility to the ever-excitable denizens of the contemporary media circus, many of whom approach these matters and interpret such events through a pre-set narrative “lense” and who have learned to craft characters and frame a narrative the way short story writers do, rather than allowing the details to tell their own story. They have learned the fine art of pitting one side against the other for the purposes of selling an exciting story. What we as a society need, however, is news. What we need are facts, not societal narratives.

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