As a journalist, I’ve always taken some pride in the fact that, sometimes, the pen is mightier than the sword. The job is to speak truth to power, but at some point, the media becomes the most powerful party. A reporter can take a single fact, or set of facts, and spin them any number of ways. The media is supposed to cover events as they happen, but often times they can influence those events, and it’s those cases that are examined in Netflix’s new documentary series Trial by Media. It’s a great idea for a docuseries, though I think it ultimately falls short of greatness.
We now have an entire channel, Court TV — whose founder Steven Brill is among the show’s executive producers — that is dedicated to covering high-profile trials like they’re contact sports. These are the memorable cases that Trial by Media is concerned with. Lawyers aren’t just performing for the jury, they’re performing for the court of public opinion that the media is helping to shape. The press shapes public perception, and sometimes that perception matters more than the facts themselves. Not only can the media influence major verdicts, but it can influence how those verdicts are received. Was the fix in from the start, or was justice served?
As one lawyer explains in the series, it’s not about the law, it’s about who can tell the best story. Indeed, the media often simplifies things into good guys and bad guys because that’s how people have been taught to understand stories. However, the world we live in isn’t black and white, it’s grey, and that’s a harder shade to sell, particularly in a fractured news landscape that demands sides must be taken, even if remaining impartial is one of the founding tenets of journalism.
As with any anthology series, some episodes are better than others, so I’m going to write about them in the order that I watched them, which signals how much each story initially interested me.
I started with the Jenny Jones episode, “Talk Show Murder,” because I remember that case from when I was a kid. After all, Netflix is leading with this episode for a reason. It centers on an unaired episode of The Jenny Jones Show, in which a man reveals that he has a crush on his straight friend, who appeared on the show with the understanding that he had a secret admirer, though their gender was never specified. Days later, the straight man killed his gay friend, which led to questions about the show’s culpability. The subsequent trial was televised on Court TV, where it became a show of its own. Jones is shown testifying, but the TV personality declined to sit for an interview, and the episode ultimately suffers from a lack of access, though the victim’s brother does offer some insight surrounding the incident.
Next up, for both myself and Netflix, was “Subway Vigilante,” which is about the infamous Bernard Goetz case. Goetz shot four black teenagers on a New York City subway in 1984, and subsequently claimed self-defense. This is the most fascinating episode, largely because of Goetz’s taped confession, which had me going back-and-forth on his story. Goetz had been victimized in the past, and while that’s no excuse for racial profiling, it does speak to his state of mind at the time of the incident. The media seemed to side with Goetz, as a lot of people were fed up with how lawless New York City, and the subway system more specifically, had become. The case made Goetz a folk hero to those who believed his actions were justified, and he was eventually acquitted of attempted murder, though a civil trial found him responsible and he was forced to declare bankruptcy.
The next episode I watched was “Big Dan’s,” which based on the description, seemed like it was about the case that inspired The Accused, which won Jodie Foster her first Oscar. It’s about a woman who is raped by multiple men on a bar’s pool table as other men sat by and watched. The trial was televised live on CNN and revealed the woman’s identity, as well as her brutal cross-examination. The episode attempts to hold the media accountable for its coverage, but it isn’t terribly effective and lacks deeper insight into the case.
The murder of a gay man. The shooting of four black men. A gang rape in New England. Those are three heavy episodes, and for my next one, I needed something a little lighter, so I watched “Blago!,” which is about Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and his corruption trial. Blagojevich was caught on tape basically trying to sell off Barack Obama‘s Senate seat to the highest bidder. He was a politician, so he understood the power of the media and opted to try and use it to his advantage. He even went on Celebrity Apprentice in an effort to repair his image. His rise and fall is practically Shakespearean, and it wasn’t helped by his wife’s media appearances, as she didn’t play as naturally to the cameras. “Blago!” might be the most entertaining episode, if only because the stakes seem considerably lower.
For the penultimate episode, it was finally time to watch “41 Shots,” which centers on the tragic case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant who was shot 41 times by four white NYPD officers. Racial tensions were sky high, and so the judge in the case allowed for a change in venue, which may have played a factor in the outcome. “41 Shots” is the most emotionally resonant of the episodes. The subject matter is tough, and I’ll admit that I initially avoided watching it, but when I was finally in the headspace for this awfully sad story, it wasn’t long before I realized it was the best of the bunch, if only because it moved me. It just felt different in many respects — less tabloid-y, and more professional.
Finally, I concluded the series with “King Richard,” which Netflix saved for last, and rightfully so, because it’s the least compelling by a significant margin. It’s about HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy, who was charged with fraud and money laundering and decided to mount an outlandish defense that saw him resort to co-hosting a religious talk show. Scrushy is one of those slimeballs who claims he “found God” and it cured him of his sinful nature, but his turnaround is never fully convincing, and in the end, I found this episode to be a chore to get through.
Trial by Fire is clearly a bit of a mixed bag, so your mileage will vary depending on where your interests lie. I loved the title sequence that features multiple newspaper and magazine fonts, but each episode clocks in between 57 and 64 mins, and as such, could probably use a 10-minute trim. When it’s locked in, the series really works, but some cases are simply more interesting than others. Yes, the media covered all of these cases, some better than others, but there’s little connective tissue. What this series really could’ve used is a host to tie the episodes together and summarize how the media affected these cases. The series boasts George Clooney and lawyer Jeffrey Toobin (The People vs. O.J. Simpson) among its team of executive producers, and kudos to Clooney for his commitment to journalism, but it would’ve been great to see him in front of the camera here at the beginning and end of each episode to sum things up.
Watching Trial by Media can, at times, feel like you’re watching a good Dateline segment, but there’s nothing that reaches out and really grabs you. Plus, the media world we live in today is so much different than what Goetz and Jones had to contend with. Both of them likely got off easy compared to how the media would likely treat them today.