Journalism and the Manafort Trial: A Hope for Substance over Soundbites.

In an Alexandria, Virginia federal courthouse this week,  Paul Manafort--- Trump's former campaign manager--- went on trial.   In thinking about this trial today, it struck me that it not only tests some very important legal and political issues, but it also demonstrates the vital importance of the press.

Many assume that court proceedings have always been televised and tweeted.   Even before the advent of social media, however,  the sights and sounds of a high profile trial have consumed our national attention and curiosity.   From the "Scopes Trial" ---with its battle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan -----to O.J. Simpson's freeway and courtroom antics, Americans have eagerly followed criminal trials with high profile defendants. 

However,  the ongoing Manafort trial reminds us of the key elements of good legal journalism:  description, explanation, context and color.   These key elements may be best demonstrated by the usual broadcasting restrictions in federal criminal trials.   Presiding Judge Thomas Selby Ellis III is but enforcing a long-standing rule in federal criminal trials. Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides as follows:   "53. Courtroom Photographing and Broadcasting Prohibited. Except as otherwise provided by statute or these rules, the court must not permit the taking of photographs in the courtroom during judicial proceedings or the broadcasting of judicial proceedings from the courtroom."

As applied in the current Manafort trial,  for example, this means that there isn't live tv coverage of the trial, nor can the press corps in the courtroom use their smart phones and other technology tools to tweet, record or otherwise report in "real time."   Instead of the usual television cameras,  trial images take the form of courtroom illustrations. While I would love to observe this trial as time permits, I am secretly grateful that these proceedings have a better chance  of explication than exploitation. I am willing to forego soundbites for cogent analysis. I admire dynamic drawings over high definition videography.

Even without the prohibitions of Rule 53, the Honorable Judge Ellis would likely restrict how this case is reported.  An Associated Press article appearing in the New York Times on August 2, 2018,  is titled: "Judge in Manafort Trial Brings Short Fuse and Sharp Wit."  The piece begins with a quote from the judge during jury selection:  "I'm  not in the theater business...You have to be better-looking for that."

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) continues to dodge the presence of video cameras in its historic courtroom. Maybe that is one reason why its decisions are the subject of more extensive explanation.  Hopefully, out of the Rule 53 broadcasting restrictions applicable to the Special Prosecutor's criminal trials, off-the-cuff commentary will be replaced by more thoughtful consideration. Fingers crossed.





Mari Bush