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Sham and Grist

By Philip M. Rubin

THE POPULAR PERCEPTION of the William Kennedy Smith murder trial is that the television cameras are making a circus out of it. This is not surprising; television is always the whipping boy of the so-called serious Americans. But, especially in this case, it is the print media which have turned this trial into a sham and grist for the daily gossip pages. In short, the print media's coverage of the William Kennedy Smith trial has been atrocious.

"It's 'Dallas.' It's 'Perry Mason.' It's 'Rashomon.' With the Palm Beach party-land ambience, the Kennedy name and faces, the dramatic opening testimony of the woman known to television audiences as 'the alleged victim,' the trial of William K. Smith is proving to be a television spectacular."

This is how Walter Goodman of The New York Times begins his December 5 piece on the rape trial. Later in his piece, Goodman writes, "Even before the woman's appearance, the show was a rich one. As the first witnesses, female friends of the defendant, told of a day and evening and night of partying on Good Friday, 1991, they brought back those movies of the 1930s, filled with drinking, dancing and beautiful people, that allowed America to dream away tough times for a while."

One would think, from reading these passages, that Goodman was writing about the gala opening of a much anticipated movie or some gigantic social event replete with laughter, gold lame gowns and bubbly cocktails.

THEN WHY HAVEN'T I seen any of these things on CNN's live coverage of the trial? Instead of smiles, there are agonizing tears pouring forth from the "alleged victim's" eyes as she responds to barrages of questions from Smith's lawyer about the details of the evening: Was the phone she used to call the police a touch-tone? If so, were the buttons in the receiver or the handset? Why do you now say that you fell when you were grabbed by Smith while you previously told the police that you 'stumbled'? Exactly how erect was Smith's penis?

Through her tears and choked, cracking voice, the woman bravely answered the lawyer's questions on Thursday, refusing to take any breaks.

All this human misery is forgotten, however, when reporters like Goodman focus on everything else but the trial at hand. The situation is tempting, for what writer or critic would refuse a chance to look at this trial? It's juicy, sexy, colorful and demanded by the public. The same principles apply to other "faddish" events which mix hard news with sensational and sordid events--like the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker scandals and the recent David Duke gubernatorial campaign.

One of the reasons these events and figures attract so much attention is that they lend themselves to all sorts of gossipy and hand-wringing speculation. But this glee is so far from the heart and the truth of these occurrences. People like Walter Goodman focus so much on the "glamour" of the event that the agony of the alleged victim is completely passed over.

PERHAPS THE REAL PROBLEM here is the print media's superior, joyfully snobbish attitude toward the television set. Walter Goodman probably thinks that he's being awfully clever in sucking some social commentary out of these proceedings, which the TV people are either too stupid or too blind to discover. He probably also believes that it is his responsibility to interpret for us the ins and outs of the trial's television coverage.

In fact, there is nothing new about his analysis. Ever since the invention of the television and its placement in every home across the nation, we have analyzed to death TV's influence on current events. For this reason, it remains a mystery to me why, with each new and sensational trial, reporters feel compelled to comment on how the television coverage has turned the players in the event into characters from soap operas or sitcoms.

This kind of analysis is not only useless--it's old-hat and tired. Television is as much a part of our culture as anything else. There is no reason for us to continue to be amazed with it and its tendency to lighten the importance and substance of everything.

IN FACT, maybe if those of us in the print media stopped being self-satisfactorily obsessed with the notion of television as a weightless, substanceless medium, we and the people behind the cameras would begin to take their subjects more seriously.

One thing is clear--the moving picture is often more revealing, honest and powerful than the written word. Just looking at Walker Evans' haunting portraits of the poor in the Depression Dust Bowl, as well as the sharp, piercing visage of Smith's lawyer Roy Black and the terrible, cracked and fearful sobs of Smith's accuser makes us realize that. Newspaper reporters should let that stand for what it is.

Philip M. Rubin '93, a Crimson editor, hopes to work for Court TV next summer.

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