A few years ago I traveled to New York City to appear on a panel at a law school event billed as a review of the year’s legal reporting. At the time, I ran a Carnegie-supported program at Syracuse University that promoted quality legal journalism. I dutifully prepped for the discussion by reading up on Supreme Court cases and honing my talking points about criminal-justice policy as reflected in quality true-crime narratives. And off to the big city I went.
Boy, was I embarrassed. No one wanted to hear what I had to say. The other panelists were all what we call in the business “TV lawyers,” meaning the talking heads who go on air to analyze crime stories — from arrest through trial, though rarely appeals, and certainly not the wonky world of the Supreme Court — on cable and network television. I had no idea who they were or what cases they were talking about. We were from opposite sides of Planet True Crime. And it was clear, from the reactions of the mostly law-student audience, that I inhabited the dark side of that planet.
I was reminded of that today while reading this New York Times front-pager by Vivian Yee and Alison Leigh Cowan profiling Mickey Sherman. It’s a portrait of a lawyer who confused TV lawyering with real lawyering, and now — in a court decision that lays bare his inadequacies in the courtroom — sees his client Michael Skakel granted a new trial as a result. The story notes Sherman’s, and everyone’s, start in TV lawyering, at Court TV, which in the early days — I was there, on the fringes — erred on the side of wonky true crime. But it evolved, or if you prefer degenerated, as its ratings suffered whenever there was no “trial of the century” in progress, which is fairly often. It’s gone now, replaced by truTV, a showcase for campy so-called reality shows.
My point? Just as there are two types of criminal lawyers — real ones who do the work that matters and “media whores” who are all talk — journalism is stratified in much the same way. The exploitation of crime for entertainment is not exactly new, nor will it ever go away, nor will “serious” crime journalism ever rival it for popularity. But there is a clear distinction worth recognizing. It’s as real as the difference between a lawyer who talks about representing clients and one who actually does.