From Jon Schmitz to Rod Blagojevich, Netflix documents the way media influences our justice system.
A lawyer once told me that part of courtroom law is acting and constructing a narrative. Even though the goal of a court of law is to uncover the truth, attorneys still have to create a narrative to appeal to the jurors. Likewise, journalism takes a chain of events and crafts a story that people can easily digest.
For centuries, the news media has used true crime to fuel sales, from Jack the Ripper to the Zodiac Killer. The rise of cable news and the 24-hour news cycle in the ‘80s and ’90s accelerated the trend, where now the news coverage influences the trial itself. The new George Clooney and Grant Heslov-produced Netflix series Trial by Media presents six different accounts of this clash between jurisprudence and journalism.
Trial by Media’s six episodes are only linked by the fact their trials were accompanied by a media firestorm. The series opens with “Talk Show Murder,” following the murder of Scott Amedure by Jon Schmitz after Scott revealed he had a secret crush on Jon on The Jenny Jones Show. “Subway Vigilante” follows Bernard Goetz, the titular subway vigilante, who shot four black teenagers on the MTA, set against the backdrop of ’80s NYC.
The next episode, “41 Shots”, recounts the tragic death of Amadou Diallo, an innocent man shot 41 times by the NYPD on his Bronx doorstep. “King Richard” shifts to a focus on the influence wealth buys in the crucial pre-trial period when ex-CEO Richard Scrushy uses his money to buy his own religious talk show to tell his own story to the public. The most harrowing of the six episodes, “Big Dan’s,” documents the rise of CNN and its “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of the trial on the brutal rape of Charyl Arajou.
The series closes with “Blago!” The least trial-centered of the episodes, it tracks the political rise and fall of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, and how his media showboating ended up hurting him – until his connection to President Trump got him a commute of sentence.
If your quarantine Netflix cravings can only be satiated by series that go into a forensic deep dive into the mechanics of the crime, then look elsewhere. Trial by Media is focused on the trial. There isn’t an attempt to re-adjudicate what occurred; instead, each director takes an opportunity to see how the prosecution and the defense presented their narrative, and how the media helped or hindered their case.
We see instances where a pre-trial media offensive helps, like Scrushy’s newfound religious zeal helped endear him to a bible-belt jury pool, but also how it backfires, when protests in the Bronx prompting a change of venue for the trial of Diallo’s killers from liberal New York City to more conservative Albany.
Despite the obvious framing theme, Trial by Media isn’t didactic; it lets the audience decide for themselves if the media’s presence in our courtroom is a force for good or ill.
Trial by Media isn’t didactic; it lets the audience decide for themselves if the media’s presence in our courtroom is a force for good or ill.
The only principled stance that the series seems to take is that it does work to humanize victims of violent crimes, especially Amadou Diallo and Cheryl Arajou. Diallo was constantly referred to as just an “immigrant street vendor” by the press, and Arajou was subjected to people debating on TV if she was asking to get raped. Both cases set off a larger national debate, from police brutality to the role of full news coverage in court, but the actual victims were overlooked in the fray. It’s heartening to see this show not do the same in its narrative.
The series focuses too much on traditional mainstream television news above all else. Despite the fact that many of the crimes involved minorities, be it people of color, women, or gay people, the media narratives are all corporate. While protests for activists are shown often, and Al Sharpton features prominently in the two New York episodes, it only shows them from the mainstream perspective.
This omission is especially present in “Talk Show Murder,” despite the fact Amedure was murdered due in part to gay panic, the episode excludes any GLBT news media accounts. There is one current GLBT rights activist who comments on the story from a current perspective, but the show didn’t show any reaction of the GLBT community at the time like it did for other stories.
Also missing is a discussion of the new way that the media impacts our perception of crime. Only the Blagojevich episode features a trial that occurred within the last decade, and that only mentions social media once. The New York episodes seem so far removed from our current reality, as they feature almost exclusively historic shots of New York with the Twin Towers in the background. We don’t see the influence of our current media trend to explore a crime post-hoc in serialized form, like Netflix’s Making a Murderer. This lends the series a more historical feel, but without any connective tissues between episodes, we are given more of a buffet to choose from than a central thesis.
The documentary work is all very good, but at the same time, it doesn’t push any new groups. Interviews are interspersed with historical video. With the exception of the two New York episodes, which almost exclusively use time appropriate establishing shots, the settings for the crimes feature the now standard aerial overheads of cities and vacant landmarks.
Also missing is a discussion of the new way that the media impacts our perception of crime.
Interviews are almost all conducted with the subject center frame in a large space, with the main exception of “41 Shots,” which used unpleasant Dutch angles and bad lighting to frame interview subjects. In all, it’s very competent but seems pretty much the same technique as Netflix’s earlier 2020 hit, Tiger King.
Trial by Media probably won’t be the same water-cooler (or, currently, Zoom party) talking point that other Netflix docuseries like Making a Murderer and Tiger King have been. The episodic nature doesn’t have the serialized hook to pull you into a binge mode like those shows. It also strays away from the sensational stunning twists. However, the stories told are compelling and give the audience something to think about after the episode ends.
While many of these events aren’t as well known today, the documentary frames them to give the viewer a sense of their impact on our current media climate. If crime procedurals and/or media studies are your thing, Trial by Media will definitely satisfy you.
Trial By Media comes to Netflix May 11th.