Watchful Eye

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Overview

According to Thaler, the presence of cameras in the courtroom is a pervasive technology that can affect public perceptions of the judicial process, change the behavior and attitudes of trial participants, and ultimately transform the sober process of justice into a media event designed for maximum public exposure. The author has interviewed more than 50 people—prominent journalists, academics, and members of the legal system—and brought together their observations in a fascinating historical and psychological profile of the televised courtroom. Thaler provides a historical overview and theoretical perspective, and discusses the new cable courtroom network and the current and continuing camera debate in New York City. He makes reference to the recent celebrated cases involving Amy Fisher, William Kennedy Smith, and Rodney King, then turns to an in-depth case study of the Joel Steinberg murder trial, including insights from the presiding judge, trial attorneys, witnesses, jurors, and the defendant himself, as well as journalists who covered the trial. The author concludes that the process of justice is slowly being turned into an entertainment vehicle, not unlike the show trials of bygone eras.

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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
Examines how television cameras in the courtroom are changing public perceptions about the judicial process, the attitudes and behavior of trial participants, and the nature of the process itself. After interviewing journalists, academics, and members of the legal profession, and reviewing several recent prominent cases, concludes that justice is declining into entertainment and will soon resemble the show trials of past eras. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Elliot E. Slotnick
The premise of Paul Thaler's THE WATCHFUL EYE can be easily stated. Television has altered the basic nature of American criminal justice processes through the incursion of cameras in America's courtrooms. At bottom, perceptions of courtroom processes change and all the relevant players -- judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses, defendants and juries -- evince altered behavior as a consequence of their encounter with television. The subtext underlying Thaler's analysis, repeated in numerous guises as a continuing mantra throughout the book, is that the changes wrought in the courtroom by television's presence have not, by and large, been good ones. At the outset, the reader is informed that the "statistical myopia" evident in surveys aimed at assessing the impact of televised judicial proceedings will not be present here. Rather, Thaler employs a richer approach that includes the extensive use of secondary source material, as well as over 50 interviews with journalists, academics, and the relevant actors in high profile criminal justice proceedings. In particular, a case study of the highly publicized New York City trial of Joel Steinberg, accused of murdering his 6 year old daughter, relies heavily on interviews with most of the trial's key participants including the judge, key witnesses, (in particular, Hedda Nussbaum), attorneys on both sides of the case, jurors, and even Joel Steinberg, the defendant. Thaler's eclectic study begins with an historical overview of the media-court relationship with a particular focus on the camera in the courtroom controversy as it has evolved since the medium's infancy. The chapter serves well as a primer on the legal controversies engendered by the countervailing interests often posed between the First Amendment's free press dictate, and the 6th Amendment's right to a fair trial. A full chapter focuses on the emergence of the Courtroom Television Network (Court TV) as a "player" in this domain, with the author doing little to conceal his dubiousness about the enterprise. Steven Brill, the driving force behind Court TV, bears the brunt of much of Thaler's criticism and skepticism. Before reaching the Steinberg case study (which accounts for approximately half of the book), Thaler describes television's role in other celebrated criminal trial settings including those involving Claus von Bulow, Amy Fisher, William Kennedy Smith, and Rodney King. In focusing on the Steinberg case, Thaler attempts to bring a theoretical perspective to the analysis, utilizing concepts such as the distraction factor, the self- consciousness factor, feedback, and mediated feedback in an effort to unravel the consequences of television's presence on courtroom proceedings and outcomes. At best, these concepts serve as an organizational device for categorizing a highly descriptive, anecdotal account of the Steinberg trial proceedings. Indeed, one cannot help but be Page 115 follows: disappointed with what emerges from the author's extensive interviewing. For the most part, the reader becomes privy to a stream of self-serving assertions and post-hoc rationalizations from all the case participants. Perhaps most disappointing is the lack of insights gained from over 50 hours of interviewing with the defendant himself, Joel Steinberg. In a fundamental sense, THE WATCHFUL EYE fails to offer very much that is "new" or that a casual consumer of the televised courtroom would not have already seen for him or herself. Indeed, Thaler's observations are standard fare and have been repeated tenfold in the daily journalistic commentary and lay bantering about the penultimate television trial scenario, the current O. J. Simpson double murder case. While a "good read," the style of the book is somewhat reminiscent of Woodward and Armstrong's THE BRETHREN in its allusions to individual states of mind, and its characterizations of the innermost feelings of key participants in the phenomena under study. In giving the Steinberg case study a docudrama feel, it appears that a good deal of creative license has been taken. Obviously, the interface between First and Sixth Amendment rights raises complex issues. Thaler's analysis, in my view, fails to adequately confront or take account of the "public domain" reality of much of the information that television is criticized for making public. Nor does the author successfully fend off the allegation that sensational trials will be treated sensationally (and, perhaps, with a lesser hold on reality -- see the Central Park Jogger case) sans cameras in the courtroom. Curiously, and disappointingly, the book does not address sufficiently the potential remedies, including those judicially imposed, for the possible clash of constitutional values. When, for example, addressing the possibility of sequestering the jury in the Steinberg case, Thaler clearly sides with Judge Rothwax's assertion that such an action would bring an untoward inconvenience to the jurors so burdened. Throughout THE WATCHFUL EYE, Paul Thaler professes to be an agnostic on the bottom line issue of television's beneficial or baneful effects in trial proceedings. Even a casual reader, however, would quickly conclude that the author of this study is a doubting critic of the televised courtroom. That, however, is not the book's major pitfall. Rather, Thaler is never very precise in fleshing out the actual substantive impact of televised trials on the administration of criminal justice. For every assertion made, a counter assertion is alluded to. All interviewed subjects cannot help but report their own subjective and self-serving perspectives on their experiences in a televised trial. While Thaler offers the reader a useful overview of the television trial controversy, his book does not yield significant new insights or conclusions. The reader is left with a generalized sense that television coverage of trials "makes a difference." Yet we are also left with little clue about what, in the final analysis, the consequences of that "difference" are.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780275951337
  • Publisher: ABC-CLIO, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/30/1994
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 266
  • Lexile: 1440L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

PAUL THALER is the Director of Journalism and Media at Mercy College in New York, a post he has held since 1982.

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Table of Contents

Preface

Introduction: The Faustian Bargain

The Age of the Television Trial

The Theater of the Television Trial

The Early Years

The Defendants: Claus von Bulow, William Kennedy Smith, and the L.A. Police

The Electronic Courtroom: The Rise of Court TV

The Forty-Fifth State

The Steinberg Trial: A Case Study

The Beginning

The Trial

The Self-Consciousness Factor

The Hedda Nussbaum Testimony

Feedback: Television's Mirror

Mediated Feedback: The Participant and the Public

The Steinberg Interview

Reflections: Television and the Steinberg Trial

Postscript: Gray Endings

Appendix

Selected Bibliography

Index

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