Jackson Trial a New Low in TV's Coverage of Law, Says UB Media Critic

Release Date: June 6, 2005 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Whatever the outcome, the Michael Jackson trial represents a low point in TV's continued trivialization of the U.S. legal system, according to Elayne Rapping, Ph.D., professor of American studies at the University at Buffalo and author of "Law and Justice as Seen on TV."

"When Court TV first aired and brought celebrity trials to the public, the Menendez brothers and O.J. Simpson cases were presented as serious trials that involved important legal and social issues," Rapping says. 

"The Jackson trial, however, is not being talked about in terms of serious legal concepts at all. Unlike the Simpson trial, there is very little attempt to educate the public.  It's really just about low-level gossip.  This type of coverage really does the law a disservice."

Rapping doubts whether most people even are aware of what legal issues will determine Jackson's fate -- despite the near constant TV coverage of the trial.

"What has passed for legal coverage is much more a matter of personality and freakishness; the trial itself doesn't have much significance at all," she says. "The coverage has been so non-serious it's become a form of reality TV. That's how far we've slunk to sleaze and trivia."

Even TV's portrayal of the trial's witnesses has focused on the weird, she points out.

"We've seen this trend more and more in the media's coverage of government and the law," Rapping says. "The coverage is focused more and more on dirty little secrets of people's personal lives."  

The one redeeming factor in the trial's coverage may turn out to be the conduct of the jury, Rapping says. "The courtroom may be the one institution in our society that people still do take seriously," she says. "For the most part, jurors take their roles very seriously and take care to follow the judge's instructions."

An acquittal in the case probably won't revive Jackson's career, Rapping concludes. Ironically, a conviction might give the better career boost.

"Then Jackson would become a victim in some people's eyes, with a chance for redemption," she says. "That story plays well in our celebrity-obsessed culture.  Look how well it did for Martha Stewart."

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