Analysis

The surprising deliberation of Court TV

The network is once again granting a murder trial "gavel-to-gavel" coverage — and it seems to have learned a thing or two

Court TV is "the hottest soap going, filled with murder, nasty divorce, nail-biting suspense." At least that was how Oprah Winfrey described the network in 1996, the era of the O.J. Simpson trial, the Rodney King beating, and the grisly, televised details of the Jeffrey Dahmer serial killer case. Throughout, Court TV's cameras sat in the courtrooms as unblinking observers of the judicial process, but if you were watching the channel in the 1990s, you might also forgivably have assumed that every legal trial in America involved murder, rape — or, well, more murder.

Three decades and a relaunch later, Court TV is once again granting a murder trial "gavel-to-gavel" coverage. But while the network has a holdover reputation of covering only the most lurid and sensational cases, Court TV's approach to the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who stands accused of murdering the unarmed Black man George Floyd last May, is unique. The traditional news networks have eyed the trial as a possible ratings boon — or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, ignored it almost entirely — and Court TV is alone in devoting its entire attention to the proceedings with limited interruption. With so many similar police brutality cases resulting in baffling acquittals over the years, that means a rare, if incomplete, look at a process that has denied justice to so many.

Court TV's coverage of the Derek Chauvin trial actually began several weeks ago, when the network aired the jury selection process. Though unseen by viewers, the Court TV team's efforts began even long before that, when the network teamed up with Chauvin's lawyers last year to seek an exception from Hennepin County District Court Judge Peter A. Cahill to the state of Minnesota's rules, which bar video and audio transmission from courtrooms unless agreed upon by all parties (the prosecution, representing Floyd, had objected). Cahill ultimately sided with the defense, citing both coronavirus restrictions, which tightly capped the courtroom's capacity and therefore Chauvin's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial, as well as the public interest in the case, which sparked the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Court TV would be allowed its cameras; every other network has to pick up its feed if they want to show the trial on air.

The lead-up to the trial itself, which began on Monday, has been nothing short of pandemonium. The media spent the days ahead of Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin touting it as the "trial of the century" and "one of the highest-profile trials in recent memory." Mark Feldstein, the chair of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland, told Variety "the Chauvin trial has everything — murder and racism, drama and spectacle — so it's an obvious ratings-grabber." Deadline suggested "it's likely to be among the most closely watched legal events in recent U.S. history." Demonstrators rallied outside the courthouse ahead of the trial. Meanwhile Court TV, in a throwback to its lurid '90s coverage, cut a dramatic trailer selling its exclusive access to the courtroom to audiences.

But on the whole, after its first day of coverage, Court TV has earned its bragging rights. While CNN and Fox News aired the trial's opening arguments, both later left the trial to cover other topics of the day, and in doing so neglected to air the full, powerful testimony of the 911 dispatcher who described being so concerned with what she was seeing from a camera across the street that she called "police on the police." ABC News, while commendable for airing the full trial, also continued to function primarily as a news network, which meant sometimes shrinking the feed to display other headlines. Court TV, however, not only aired the trial live and uninterrupted, but also offered three different camera angles, so viewers could see the judge or attorney, the witness, and the reactions of Derek Chauvin at once. (Zooming in on Chauvin is not allowed, nor is showing George Floyd's family, both being decisions that further eliminate the potential for tabloid-like coverage).

Court TV's team has also offered top-notch commentary, helping orient viewers between sessions. The network is likewise being extremely deliberate in its choices of how it approaches coverage, evidently aware of the responsibility it has showing the nation the events inside the courtroom, The Washington Post reports — including the network's intentional decision to frame the coverage around Derek Chauvin, even if the victim, George Floyd, has the better-recognized name (Floyd, however, is "not on trial," as one Court TV producer pointed out — an important distinction, since the defense is expected to try to redirect attention to his character to defend Chauvin's actions).

Still, some critics slammed Court TV for claiming "transparency" and objectivity with their C-SPAN-like feeds of the courtroom: "If you buy into the concept, you're buying into the bull, because you're accepting the fact that this is a legitimate process that's blind, with everyone having equal opportunities," Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California, told the Post. "It's a way of justifying the system."

True as that may be, it's still better to be privy to the process than to let it unfold behind closed and muffled doors, the way it has over and over again in the past. To a certain extent, that's as simple as ensuring accountability: "The world is waiting to see if the U.S. will be courageous enough to stand up to a system that has a history of violating the rights of African Americans and, rather than protecting those lives, has actually destroyed them," civil rights attorney Areva Martin explained to The Guardian. For others, access to Court TV is a question of preventing the further deferral of justice: "We can't trust this system; they need to be watched," former Minneapolis NAACP president Leslie E. Redmond told USA Today. There is a third reason that Court TV's coverage is essential, too: posterity. If justice is not served, then it can be observed by millions firsthand that our legal system does not serve victims of color. We'll know, because we'll have seen it.

Court TV has its own financial interest in the Derek Chauvin trial becoming a successful television spectacle, of course. The network is not an altogether altruistic player in the process. But the channel is doing something that nearly no one else is: Giving the pursuit of justice for George Floyd the undivided attention of its cameras and staff.

With it, we might not be entertained, per se — but we can all bear witness.

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