LLRX Book Review by Heather A. Phillips – Tabloid Justice: Criminal Justice in an Age of Media Frenzy and The Star Chamber: How Celebrities Go Free and their Lawyers Become Famous

Richard L. Fox, et. al., Tabloid Justice: Criminal Justice in an Age of Media Frenzy, 2nd ed. (Lynne Rienner, 2007)

Like many others who watched the news in the 1990s, the authors were dismayed by the thousands of hours devoted to “infotainment” stories such as the O.J. Simpson trial, the JonBenet Ramsey case, and the Lorena Bobbit trial. They coined the phrase ‘tabloid justice’ to describe these cases and their impact on journalism. The move away from descriptive reporting toward journalistic practices that focus on the sensational, marginal and personalized aspects high-profile legal cases, the authors contend, has done the viewing public no favors.

Though legal lights such as Alan Dershowitz argue that, in essence “there is no such thing as bad publicity” when it comes to any type information about the legal system, since this cannot help but be a good thing for the democratic process, the authors disagree. The continuing overwhelming prevalence of shallow and sensationalized reporting (enhanced by the growth of “new media” outlets such as Court TV), they feel, has had a markedly negative impact on the public’s understanding of the legal and justice systems in the US. By squeezing out other, more substantive, “hard news”, the shift toward “tabloid justice” harms the democratic process by depriving people of solid and accurate information and supplying instead a panoply of shallow, titillating and sensationalized trivia.

In order to illustrate these points, the book focuses most of its attention on six major criminal cases of the 1990s: The William Kennedy Smith rape trial, the Rodney King officers’ assault trial, the trail of the Menendez brothers, the O. J. Simpson trial, the Louise Woodward “nanny” case, and the impeachment of President Clinton. The book opens with useful summaries of the circumstances surrounding each of these cases. By contextualizing the cases, the authors set the stage for the book’s main contention; that the 1990s was the “era of tabloid justice”.

In their quest to quantify the changes they see, the authors ran a survey study from which they provide statistical evidence to support their contention that the tabloidization of the news has driven many Americans to question the basic fairness of the legal system, and a concomitant erosion of confidence in the justice system, and a rise in the opinion that “justice can be bought” – that is, that the affluent are more likely to see a favorable outcome from the justice system.

I was gratified to see that, though the authors focused on the 1990s as an era in which “tabloid justice” saw a phenomenal increase, they also recalled and reported upon high profile and sensationalized news stories from the past such as the Fatty Arbuckle trial in the 1920s and the abduction of the Lindberg baby (and the subsequent trial and investigation) in the 1930s. For while nobody who was media-aware during the 1990s could forget the seemingly endless parade of sensational, high-profile criminal trials, it would be historically ignorant to contend that sensational trial coverage was born during this decade.

Indeed, the authors seek to quantify the shift toward greater tabloidization by quantifying the amount of news coverage allotted to high-profile or sensational news trials in three different time periods – 1968-1974, 1975-1989, 1990-1998. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the authors discover that the amount of news coverage of high-profile criminal trials has increased over time. For example, they show that the number of news segments allotted to the Manson trials was smaller than those allotted to the coverage of the O. J. Simpson trial. Moreover, they contend, high-profile crime stories have are now more likely to be lead stories than they were in the past.

One thing I was troubled by was the loose definition of “the criminal justice system” used in the book. Though the authors refer clearly (and frequently) to defense lawyers, judges and prosecutors, it is unclear whether they include statutes, legislatures and the prison/penalty system under this umbrella. At times, the “system” seems to include everyone from pool reporters to potential jury pools. At other times the authors seem to draw this line more closely. Given that this term is central to the contentions the authors put forth, I found myself wishing that it had been more clearly delineated.

Also, though the authors contend that “tabloid coverage” is coverage notable for its mass coverage via television, as well as its serialization, personification, and commodification. I found myself occasionally questioning whether it was the content or the manner of coverage that was the true hallmark of tabloid coverage. For example, the authors use the impeachment of President Clinton as one example of “tabloid coverage” in their discussion. And while the story was certainly sensationalized (I, for one, may never be able to look at a blue dress the same way again) – it also provided a concrete object-lesson in civics and the interplay between the executive and legislative branches of American government. Indeed, the authors’ point that the decline in the quality of “hard news coverage” and the rise of ‘infotainment’ – a hallmark of the increasingly blurred distinction between “news” and mass entertainment, which ill-serves a democratic society – seems to accede this point. It seems possible that this blurred distinction was a part of the authors’ definition. If this is the case, however, it was never entirely clear to me, and was never clearly stated. In light of these “definitional” issues, I would like to suggest that subsequent editions be revised to include more explicit definitions of these key terms.

In spite of these issues, Tabloid Justice is a useful primer on the “tabloidization” of news, and its impact on the public’s attitudes toward the justice system. The book should be of interest to libraries which support programs dealing with journalism, media and politics issues, and would be a useful addition to law libraries collecting in the area of law and media issues.

Eric Dubin, The Star Chamber: How Celebrities go Free and their Lawyers Become Famous. (Phoenix Books, 2007)

The Star Chamber is another book which takes on themes of the sensationalization of high-profile trials. Told from the point of view of an insider (as opposed to that of an outside observer), (the author spent five years embroiled in the high profile trenches culminating with his 30-million-dollar civil wrongful death verdict against Robert Blake) the book illuminates at first-hand the details of what really happens when the media circus invades the courthouse, and the effect it has on both the trial participants and the verdict.

The author’s basic contention is perhaps most neatly summed up by an interview given by the author to the New York Post “(T)he legal system is tainted. Fame and fortune’s unbeatable. Celebrity creates its own set of rules. These are familiar faces. They’ve been in your living room. Brought you pleasure. They’re happy friends. Can’t convict a friend you know. Fame brings reasonable doubt. Fortune buys the best lawyers obtainable.”

Given that this is the personal account of a “super lawyer” portraying the life of an insider at a sensationalized celebrity trial (as well as a frequent media commentator on such trials), the book is perhaps best considered a memoir, rather than a candidate for the shelves of a law library. However, its accounts of trial tactics, and the frequently adversarial relationship between the media and courtroom management (see Chapter 17 “The Media vs. a Fair Trial”) do draw a clear portrait of the issues facing counsel and especially judges during high profile cases. And the first-hand account of a lawyer facing a media circus on behalf of a client would, I imagine, be of extreme interest to any lawyer who fears that he may be facing a similar situation.

Though it is an entertaining and in some ways interesting book, I am ambivalent on recommending it to many libraries. Certainly a media studies program would find this book interesting, and therefore, the book might find a home in a library that supports such a program. Likewise a law and media program might find this book to be interesting. Public libraries, which have different collection priorities than law and university libraries, might also find a welcome home for it on their shelves. However, I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to the vast majority of law or university libraries. Its sensationalistic (“Isn’t it true that you smoked crack with monkeys?” (p. 178)) tone and penchant for self-aggrandizement (“I made a promise to get justice for these children for the murder of their mother, or go down trying.” (p. 160)) greatly overshadow the substance of the book.

Tabloid Justice: Criminal Justice in an Age of Media Frenzy
Author: Richard L. Fox, Robert W. Van Sickel, Thomas L. Steiger
Binding: Paperback
List price: $23.50
Amazon price: $23.50

The Star Chamber: How Celebrities Go Free and Their Lawyers Become Famous
Author: Eric Dubin
Binding: Hardcover
List price: $25.95
Amazon price: $43.78
Posted in: Columns, Criminal Law, LLRX Book Review