MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, May 22nd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a review of the new Netflix documentary series, Trial by Media.
BASHAM: Now, I have to say, I would have liked to have reviewed another documentary that just hit today. But regrettably, despite multiple requests, I couldn’t get F/X to give me a screener for AKA Jane Roe.
The film has been making a lot of headlines. It features a series of interviews with former abortion poster girl turned pro-life activist, Norma McCorvey.
EICHER: McCorvey was the Roe in Roe v Wade. In the mid-nineties, she repudiated all that, and said she’d come to oppose abortion. She spoke out vehemently against it, and became a well-known, well-respected figure in the pro-life movement. In 2005 she testified before the U.S. Senate, pleading with them to reverse Roe v. Wade.
But here’s the surprise. In the documentary AKA Jane Roe, McCorvey reportedly reveals, on her deathbed, that she was never really committed to the pro-life cause. She says it was an all act. That according to the documentary, she said only what Christian groups paid her to say.
BASHAM: Right, though, as I said, I can’t confirm that. Because while I am certified on Rotten Tomatoes as one of the official critics, and I’m on most major studio and network press lists, F/X ignored me. They also didn’t respond to my not-so-subtle social media pressure.
Meanwhile, many other, in some cases much smaller outlets, got a chance to preview the film.
And I’ll say it is curious because I’ve had no problem in the past getting press screeners from F/X’s parent company, ABC. So, not sure what that’s all about, but I’ll take a look at the film this weekend with the rest of the public and report back next week.
EICHER: What we can tell you is that our reporter, Bob Brown, reached out to some of the Christian and pro-life groups McCorvey was involved with. They told him that they haven’t seen the film either, but that their long experience with McCorvey leads them to doubt what many media outlets are characterizing as a bombshell. And doubt is probably an understatement.
BASHAM: Yeah, they say McCorvey, who had a difficult life and struggled with substance abuse, could be a bit of an unpredictable personality. But they also insist that whatever she may have said to the filmmakers in her last few months alive, while she was very sick, they don’t believe the documentary’s characterization.
You can read more about that on our website, wng.org.
But now let’s talk about the documentary series I was able to see this week.
It’s a new Netflix series, Trial by Media. And it looks at the impact of trash TV and cable news on six high-profile legal cases. Executive produced by George Clooney and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, it explores how tabloid journalism influences our justice system.
CLIP: If you want to understand what really happened, everything was done for the purpose of ratings and ratings are money. And that’s really what happened in the show. Somebody lost their life for money. Have you developed an understanding to how people react to being deceived, embarrassed or humiliated on your show? No because we don’t deceive, embarrass or humiliate people on our show. That may be a tough sell in front of these jurors.
Clooney and his team choose their examples well. The incidents are familiar, but don’t rise to the saturation level of, say, the OJ Simpson trial. With the possible exception of Rod Blagojevich’s 2008 corruption case, all are pretty far in the rear-view mirror. Most viewers won’t know or won’t remember the pivotal role the media played.
Take, for example, the Bernie Goetz subway shootings. It’s startling to see how similar the public debate in 1984 was to today.
CLIP: If you really felt they were going to do something to harm you, you get up and show your gun at worst. And say leave me alone. But you don’t get up and just start firing and shoot four people. How’s that self defense other than you’re really dealing with this kind of fear and overreaction that is soaked with race and bigotry.
Also eye-opening—how lobbyists and political movements turn local crimes into cause celebres for their own national interests.
CLIP: So the Bernie Goetz story was an opportunity on a high visibility issue for the NRA to weigh in on the side of the victims. The NRA wants legislation reintroduced in Albany that would give people greater access to firearm permits. So I got my bosses at NRA to let me do a news conference to get our point of view expressed.
What we see again and again is that the media’s rush to neatly frame a story often means they get details wrong. And how easily those errors whip the public into a frenzy, simplifying complex problems, dividing us into tribes, and feeding a rapacious desire for conflict and grievance.
The problem is the series doesn’t spend much time looking at the other side of the coin. It’s hard to argue that something like The Jenny Jones Show holds much redeeming value for society. But what other options are there?
This is the only moment in the entire six episode run that grapples in any serious way with the principle of a free press.
CLIP: Journalists every day set up sources knowing that they’re going to betray them a certain way for the public interest. To get important material out to the public. And trash TV may make you cringe. But it would make you cringe a lot more if you lost the First Amendment in getting rid of trash TV.
Instead it becomes so enamored with the big legal personalities, it’s easy to understand why journalists would have focused on them at the time.
One of the most entertaining episodes involves a country lawyer defending the CEO of a big medical company. His secret weapon? He knows just what to say to make the evening news.
CLIP: So we don’t have much of a chance. Except for something my grandmama used to tell me when I was growing up as a young boy: Remember this grandson, no matter how thin they make a pancake it still has two sides to it. So what I’d like to do is you’ve just heard the side from the government. What I want you to do is let’s flip that pancake over.
Immediately, every channel runs with this home-fried wisdom. The prosecution, utterly defanged, has no showman to rival him.
CLIP: He says, quote, no matter how thin a pancake is it has two sides. I think someone gave him a spatula at one point.
Eventually though, we get the kicker.
CLIP: Did your grandma really say that about the pancake? Uh, no. I made that up years ago.
From the circus events Al Sharpton organizes to Blagojevich appearing on Celebrity Apprentice, there’s no denying Trial by Media holds up an unflattering mirror to our culture. Even in the most serious matters, it charges, we are a deeply unserious, easily-manipulated people.
Yet the series does a little manipulating of it’s own through the examples it chooses, sticking mostly to progressive stereotypes of what victims and villains look like.
It would have been more complex if it had also mixed in cases like, say, Amanda Knox, Richard Jewell, or Brett Kavanaugh. Cases that illustrate government overreach or show that a privileged background can also inspire prejudice and animosity.
If there are future seasons, they might also look inside their own house and ask how the press protects friends like Harvey Weinsten or Charlie Rose from negative coverage.
Perhaps the most beneficial element of the series is it cures the desire to ask, “Why were the old days better than these?
CLIP: They deliberated for a few days and the judge of course is very concerned that they’re going to be influenced by this massive media presence.
It can be a little depressing to see the same national strife playing out over decades, but it’s also reassuring to realize there’s nothing new under the sun.