Popular Trials: Rhetoric, Mass Media, and the Law

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Overview

Contemporary scholarship illustrates the law’s increasingly powerful role in American life; legal education, in turn, has focused on the problems and techniques of communication. This book addresses these interests through critical study of eight popular trials: the 17th-century trial of Dr. Henry Sacheverell, and the 20th-century trials of Scopes, the Rosenbergs, the Chicago Seven, the Catonsville Nine, John Hinckley, Claus von Bulow, and San Diego Mayor Larry Hedgecock. Such trials spark major public debates, become symbols of public life, and legitimize particular beliefs and institutions. Despite high visibility and drama, however, the popular trial has not received sufficient study as persuasive event. Lying at the intersection of the institutional practices of law and the mass media, the popular trial has confounded study according to the conventional assumptions of scholarship in both law and communication studies.

            This volume defines popular trials as a genre of public communication, a genre that includes trials unusually prominent within public discourse. Further, popular trials are often characterize by special media presentations through televised coverage of the trial itself and news analysis, intense audience identification with the principal actors, and political and social consequences independent of the legal action. The essays in this volume stress the rhetorical functions of popular trials. Contributors in addition to the editor include Lawrance M. Bernabo, Barry Brummett, Celeste Michelle Condit, Juliet Dee, Susan J. Drucker, J. Justin Gustainis, Janice Platt Hunold, William Lewis, John Louis Lucaites, and Larry A. Williamson.

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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
This critical study of seven popular trials illustrates the interaction of the law and the mass media. The seven are the 17th century trial of Dr. Henry Sacheverell, and the 20th century trials of Scopes, the Chicago Seven, the Catonsville Nine, John Hinckley, Claus von Bulow, and San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR booknews.com
William Haltom
Every student of the judicial process welcomes investigation of how mass media and popularization affect adjudication. POPULAR TRIALS offers seven case studies and two theoretical chapters regarding Anglo-American trials as media events. However, the methods employed are so impressionistic and the conclusions reached so unsurprising that neither specialist nor tyro is likely to profit much from the book as a whole. Still, specific chapters may introduce readers to new ways of thinking about famous trials. Editor Robert Hariman defines a popular trial as "a judicial proceeding that gains the attention of a general audience, usually through sustained coverage by the mass media." [p. 2] The volume is designed to define such trials as a "genre," a recurring pattern of esthetic and rhetorical conventions in public discourse that defines and maintains a community. Professor Hariman expertly establishes that prior research on popular trials leaves much to build on but much to do. He and ten other writers, eight of whom trained in speech communication, explore the rhetoric of such showcase trials in an attempt to establish the characteristics of this genre. Because the essays lack a core of theory and method, the case studies are episodic rather than cumulative. The reader finishes the book informed about the details of some famous trials and grateful for the graceful prose of the authors, but the "genre" remains as murky as before. Professor Hariman in Chapter One clearly defines "genres" for non-specialists and whets the reader's appetite for an examination of law in media-dominated society. Tantalizing phrases such as "Performing the Laws" and interesting notions such as the constraints that the genre imposes on trials lead the reader on. Hariman makes the case that there is much that is distinctive about trials as theatrical and rhetoric events: the necessity of reaching dichotomous and often artificial resolutions, the unrelenting focus on personalities and character, and the on-going negotiation of social reality that dominates courtrooms. However, this theoretical overview anticipates no interesting insights. Instead the reader reads that "As the following essays demonstrate, a performance of the laws can be a dramatic event rich enough to challenge any critic." [30] Certainly readers will concede that juridical performances are dramatic and rich and that criticism of trials is a challenging art. The analyses that follow are aimed primarily at audiences in Speech Communication who are perhaps as likely to regard trials credulously and naively as Professor Hariman maintains. Political scientists versed in the actual ways of adjudication will probably be disappointed. In Chapter Two, Page 129 follows: for example, Professor John Louis Lucaites examines the role of "ideographs" in the trial in the House of Commons of Dr. Henry Sacheverell 1709-1710. He explains that ideographs are common phrases that represent the normative commitments of communities. In the Sacheverell trial, he argues, Whigs and Tories used such ideographs to negotiate in public the meaning of the Glorious Revolution. That courtrooms are often arenas in which partisans contend over ideas, values, and condensational symbols will have occurred to most political scientists. Readers unfamiliar with the Sacheverell trial will learn about another instance of politicization of adjudication. They will also learn about the delightfully bifurcated ideological and political consequences of the trial. They will seek in vain any models or generalizations that issue from such discussions. The same strength and shortcoming apply to other vignettes in the volume. Each chapter establishes that the rhetorical consequences of litigation can diverge from the legal results. Each chapter introduces a different approach to unpacking the rhetorical or popular implications of trials. These approaches are interesting and potentially worthwhile tools with which political scientists might well want to become familiar. Each approach adds up to no conclusions broader than the trial to which it is applied. Other trials covered include the Scopes "Monkey Trial," the trials of the Chicago Seven, John Hinckley, Mayor Roger Hedgecock of San Diego, the Catonsville Nine, and the retrial of Claus von Bulow. Thus, the authors are partial to modern U. S. cases. Dr. Sacheverell's is the only foreign case and only two of the cases predated television. To establish a trial "genre," the editor and authors would have to examine popularized adjudication in other nations and other times: Joan of Arc, Galileo, Aaron Burr, Peter Zenger, the Inquisition, war crimes trials, and the Salem witch trials suggest themselves. There may be very good reasons for avoiding some of those trials, but surely essays ought to refer to such. The editor provides no justification for the focus on current events. The ad hoc analyses add up to so little that the final chapter is not a concluding chapter. Indeed, the author of the chapter need never have read the foregoing chapters: "This chapter takes the frankly polemical position, PERHAPS IN OPPOSITION TO SOME OF MY FELLOW CONTRIBUTORS, that the mediation of trials through television perpetuates undesirable ways of thinking about the justice system." [p. 179; emphasis added] Since television played a major part in only some of the trials in the volume, this chapter is explicitly tangential to the rest of the book. The chapter is well written and provocative. Any reader could benefit from reading and arguing with it. It is unfortunate that the chapter also leaves readers on their own to piece together the "genre" that book set out to define. These essays, then, may pique the interest of some students and provide a pithy introduction to some famous cases. If readers complete some part of the project that this book was to undertake, perhaps the book will yield insights about how mass media and popularization affect adjudication.
From the Publisher
"An excellent treatment of the criminal trial as a media forum that mediates social issues to the masses."
—CHOICE

"This book explains . . . How some trials have managed to acquire an importance, both to contemporaries and in history, that far outstrips their limited legal signiÞcance."
—The Journal of American History

“An original, and valuable, contribution to our understanding of the rhetoric of mediated public discourse. . . .The essays are well researched, well argued, and well written.” - Stephen A. Smith, University of Arkansas

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Product Details

Meet the Author

 Robert Hariman is Associate Professor of Speech Communication at Drake University.

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