Keep SCOTUS In Camera, Not on It

PUBLISHED: February 22, 2012

Not since Bush v. Gore has a U.S. Supreme Court case roused as much public interest as next month's highly anticipated review of the 2010 health care law. It would make a spectacular TV show and lift the curtain on workings of the nation's highest court. But placing cameras in the court is a bad idea.

Television, as those of us who have worked in it know well, is a valuable tool but not a neutral observer. The very act of pointing a camera is an editing process that grows more subjective each time a director switches from one angle to another, or decides when to cut to a reaction shot. Rules governing coverage can address that, as with C-SPAN's telecasts of Congress, but such rules also tend to reshape the message into a TV version of "reality."

People usually behave differently when they know they are on television. Moreover, perception of on-screen images is not always the same as the view formed when content is evaluated without video.

Just look at what television has done to the nation's political debates. Way back in the first Kennedy-Nixon contest there was widespread belief that Nixon won the radio and print coverage, while Kennedy prevailed on TV. Kennedy looked tan and fit, while Nixon declined to wear makeup, affecting not only his appearance but also public reaction to his arguments. Should Chief Justice Roberts wear makeup to ensure that his comments are received in the best light?

TV helped presidential debates devolve to the spectacles they are today. Yet, despite television's power to influence and distort, televised debates are essential in the election process because the public requires information to pass judgment; the trade-off is acceptable.

Equally appropriate is C-SPAN's chronicle of Capitol Hill, although it, too, is flawed. The coverage is compromised by rules allowing members to speak to near-empty chambers while cameras avoid showing vacant seats or the bored reaction of colleagues.

Televised Congressional hearings are marked by grandstanding and politicking for the cameras, forcing more substantive discussions to be held behind closed doors. It's not entirely coincidence that Congress has become gradually less effective during the TV era.

The legal system, at least at the Supreme Court level, is not ready for such pressure or compromise.

Television's most infamous courtroom exercise, O.J. Simpson's murder trial in 1995, gave a national audience a lesson about the impact of TV. Most key participants played to the cameras, some overtly, and the entire production, right down the verdict, made a mockery of the system.

My own experience in a televised trial – concerning, of all things, the appropriate behavior of hidden-camera TV - convinced me of the unintended consequences that came with coverage by Court TV. It was telling that when the judge ordered cameras turned off during one sensitive portion of the trial, a shift in demeanor was immediately apparent among attorneys, witnesses and even jurors.

Yet, powerful voices now advocate TV coverage of the Supreme Court. Justice Elena Kagan, the court's newest and youngest member, has stated that cameras would "make people feel so good about this branch of government." Indeed, most who favor the move tend to focus on the interest of the public rather than the impact on the process. Perhaps advocates are more familiar with law than with television.

Many point out that the court's public sessions are already available on audio feeds and in written transcripts - so what's wrong with broadening coverage to include video? The real question is why? If the full content is already available, what does a TV audience hope to learn? What the attorneys are wearing? How nervous they appear to be?

This is an age when many of our respected institutions are being subjected to increasingly irreverent behavior - much of it either provoked by, or widely distributed by, television. The Supreme Court must operate on a higher plane to preserve the dignity of its process and the integrity of its decisions. It should be spared the burden of TV's reality.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in USA Today.

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