Television is a medium of emotion. It is an ineffective tool for promoting rational thinking and deliberation. That’s why the judges who will oversee the upcoming court proceedings for former President Donald Trump should resist calls to put the trials on television.
Calls for televising the upcoming Trump trials are coming from several media outlets and from some Democratic congressmen. Even one of Trump’s attorneys, John Lauro, recently told Fox News he hoped television cameras would be allowed in the courtrooms where Trump appears. The main argument for allowing television is the historic nature of a former president going on trial.
But that’s an insufficient reason to contaminate the atmosphere of a courtroom with media tools of entertainment. Cameras have long been prohibited from federal courts, and the reasons for that prohibition need not be discarded for whimsical notions about historical novelty.
Televising a court proceeding alters the atmosphere of the courtroom. Participants from witnesses and attorneys to judges will be necessarily aware of the cameras and behave accordingly.
The late George Gerbner, a prominent media theorist at the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledged the negative effect of television cameras in courtrooms. “As every student of communication knows, when you change the audience, you change the proceeding,” he said. When the audience expands from courtroom attendees to a television audience of millions, it is impossible for participants to act as they otherwise would.
Trials are for the administration of justice, not for spectacle or entertainment. No doubt the general public will have much interest in the Trump proceedings, but the court of public opinion should be irrelevant to reaching a fair verdict, whatever that might be.
Proponents of televising the trials talk about the need for transparency, but that’s a hollow argument. They are really calling for sensationalism. Television always simplifies thinking, and that’s exactly what the nation should avoid while complex legal matters are being argued.
Concerned citizens interested in how the trials play out will have plenty of ways to follow the developments. Journalists will be in the courtroom, filing timely reports. Transcripts of the proceedings will be available promptly. Devoted news consumers will just have to read about the developments instead of watching them.
Reading, by the way, is a much more efficient way to absorb information than looking at video images.
It seems the anti-Trump forces are most interested in seeing the former president subjected to a televised trial, believing the sight of Trump on trial will diminish him and make him look sinister. But Trump’s opponents might be careful what they wish for. Television coverage could benefit Trump, depending on how he plays the situation.
Trump knows how to play to the cameras. He pulled off a long-running and rather vacuous reality show on network television for more than 10 years. Staging made-for-TV rallies helped get him elected president in 2016.
Television as an agent of argumentation has its limitations. The people clamoring to see the Trump trials on television might also consider the aftermath of the made-for-TV House select committee Jan. 6 hearings. Ten televised hearings were conducted over six months last year, including two during prime time. A former network producer was even brought in to maximize the television production value of the events.
Despite the volume of damaging material and testimony that was designed to disable Trump and prevent his political revival, he remains a serious factor in the upcoming 2024 campaign. As the Jan. 6 hearings wound down, a national poll conducted by Monmouth University showed public interest in the hearings was modest, at best. Further, survey respondents reported overwhelmingly that their opinions about what happened on that day had not changed because of the televised hearings.
The influential media theorist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan observed after the 1976 Carter-Ford televised presidential debate that “TV is not a debating medium.” His concern was that people watching television focus only on images, not on any content that is spoken. The nation, and the presiding judges of the Trump trials, should note McLuhan’s insights. These historic trials, indeed, will demand that citizens think rather than emote.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.
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