The new Netflix documentary series puts media in the dock

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on June 11, 2020

Guilty as charged: Trial by Mediais a polished and tightly edited series that never needs to raise its voice image courtesy netflix   -  IMAGE COURTESY: NETFLIX

George Clooney’s Trial by Media turns the lens on the role of the American media in six high-profile trials

* The episode was based on a real-life case — the 1995 killing of Scott Amedure by an acquaintance

* Another episode follows the criminal and civil trials of Bernard Goetz, who shot and injured four black teenagers

In April 2008, the American Broadcasting Company aired ‘Tabloid Nation’, an episode in its hit dramedy Boston Legal. The protagonist Alan Shore (James Spader) is trying a civil case on behalf of Harry Beckham (Nick Searcy). Beckham’s daughter was killed following her appearance on a talk show specialising in ‘cathartic confrontation’ — her abusive ex-boyfriend proposes to her on air. She says ‘no’ and days later he kills her, prompting her father to sue the network that produced the show.

The episode was based on a real-life case — the 1995 killing of Scott Amedure by an acquaintance, Jonathan Schmitz, three days after the two men recorded an episode of The Jenny Jones Show. Amedure, a gay man, confessed to having a crush on Schmitz, while the latter, who seemed visibly uncomfortable, insisted he was “definitely heterosexual”. Three days later, Schmitz turned up at Amedure’s flat with a shotgun and killed him before turning himself in to the police.

Nearly 25 years after the incident, the circumstances surrounding the case — specifically, the cynical, convoluted role played by TV and print media — have been wonderfully contextualised by the first episode of the Netflix documentary series Trial by Media (released on May 11). With actor George Clooney as executive producer, it is a polished, tightly edited series that never needs to raise its voice. The technical mastery and the thoroughness of its research allow it to maintain a casually ominous tonality throughout the six 60-minute episodes, each covering a different high-profile trial.

The Amedure episode is possibly the best one. In 1967, the French sociologist Guy Debord published The Society of the Spectacle, where he theorised that capitalism (among other developments) had led to a society where “passive identification with the spectacle” supplanted “genuine activity”. The Amedure murder was a near-perfect demonstration of the Debordian ‘spectacular society’: The makers of the TV show (including the host Jenny Jones) lied to Schmitz for the sake of their (very profitable) spectacle. They knew that Amedure was going to do what he did. They also knew that Schmitz’s parents had grilled him about his possible homosexuality; and, yet, they lied to him that they didn’t know whether it would be a man or a woman confessing their crush on him.

The spectacle, however, does not end with the murder. Geoffrey Fieger, the attorney representing the Amedures in their civil suit against Warner Media (the producers of The Jenny Jones Show), further sensationalises the case with a string of flamboyant media appearances. Here’s where it gets too meta for words — we learn that Court TV, the network that accounted for a lot of Fieger’s theatrics, was owned by Warner Media at the time. As Fieger explains in a fresh interview he shot for Trial by Media, Warner Media was “making a fortune” off its own impending defeat in court.

The moral of the story is that there are no absolute heroes in a story like this one. Jenny Jones and her producers were by no means blameless (morally, if not legally). But many viewers will also be disgusted by Fieger’s visible glee as he reminisces about savaging Jones on the stand (“You used these people for profit, didn’t you, Ms Jones? How would you feel if I were to express a sexual fantasy about you on the air?”).

Another episode follows the criminal and civil trials of Bernard Goetz, who shot and injured four black teenagers. The fourth in the series is on Richard Scrushy, a healthcare company founder convicted of money laundering, extortion, obstruction of justice, racketeering and bribery.

As is inevitably the case for documentaries about the American criminal justice system, racism plays a major role in at least three of the six shows. Reverend Al Sharpton, himself no stranger to the spectacular society, makes an appearance in the second and third trials. Over the last four decades or so, Sharpton has been one of the most visible faces on American television, especially as an advocate for the African-American community. His critics say that Sharpton’s signature polemic style and his dramatic flair often end up eclipsing the matter at hand.

However, Trial by Media portrays him as a canny, self-aware activist who uses the spectacle strategically. “You have to find ways of staying in the news cycle if you want to push the button on issues,” insists Sharpton in the third case, based on the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, a New York-based Guinean immigrant shot 41 times by four plain-clothes police officers outside his apartment after they thought he had a weapon (he didn’t). We see how Sharpton and Frankie Edozien, a Nigerian-American journalist, help bring the public’s attention to this case. The officers are indicted on second-degree murder charges. However, in a sequence of events that sums up the state of race relations in the US, a court orders the trial to be shifted from Harlem (19 per cent white) to Albany (89 per cent white), over 100 miles away. Ten out of 12 Albany jurors are white, and all four accused officers are acquitted.

In 2008, in the Boston Legal episode ‘Tabloid Nation’, Shore tears into the ethically bankrupt TV media during his closing remarks. “A tragedy occurred here, a woman was killed, but for the show, the real tragedy was that the killing didn’t happen on the show!” Trial by Media is a painful reminder that Shore’s cynical fantasy may well come true one day.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

Published on June 11, 2020

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