Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Threatdown-ul: Canalul Rus

I warned Russian state television that they were on notice, but they keep acting up. The latest offense of theirs to come across the airwaves; court television shows.

It seems that Russian TV has borrowed from the American daytime tradition of The People's Court, Judge Mills Lane, and Judge Judy. At first glance, their version seems a dead ringer for the American shows; a sparse set, witnesses with apparently little understanding of court decorum, and the Russian equivalent of rednecks.

American court shows are entertaining because of their frivolity; random small-claims civil suits for which both parties sign away their right to a lawyer in order to be on television. I thought that the Russian show was conducted with the same frivolity, and I once joked to my family that, just like in America, the Russian show only had "the best and smartest people." Although I couldn't understand the petty claims that the people on TV were making, I was sure that they were inconsequential items fitting for daytime television; maybe a restraining order against a guy with bizarre sexual preferences or a $1,000 settlement for the wrongful rent termination of a tenant whose dog didn't actually bite the landlord. I thought that until my host father translated the case for me one evening.

"There was a party, and somebody died," Dumitru said. "All the witnesses say that that man was seen around the person's drink, and a police search of his house found the same drug that killed the woman at the party."

What? There's a normal guy getting tried on television for murder? I was suddenly not very comfortable watching the show.

This afternoon, the show was on again. After the opening video montage, my host mother said, "That man killed his mother."

"It's saidВ that he killed his mother," I corrected her, reminding her that he should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

"Well, sure," Maria said. "They'll have a trial, but that's what they're trying him for."

After seeing the show this second time, I was offended. The concept of televising a murder trial in a 30-minute block seems fundamentally wrong to me. Unlike on our American court programs, these are serious cases that determine the rest of people's lives; no matter what crime they may have committed, they deserve the dignity of not having evidence brought up against them on public television. Do you think that these alleged murderers signed agreements to allow cameras into their trials? Do you think that the victims' families lobbied the prosecutor to publicize their tragedies across the country? This is the state-run media charging money for commercials during a murder trial.

I gave Maria a shortened version of the above speech. But later, in my room, I began thinking. Is making murder trials into questionably compelling television programmingВ thatВ much worse than the American media's gushing over the trials of Jeffrey Dahmer, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson? It's a complicated equation, based on the public's right to know, a celebrity's entitlement to privacy, the oddity of a case and how the media conducts itself.

In terms of the public's right to know, every trial is worthy of being reported, because the information is public. The public has a right to to know what is occurring in their neighborhood, their state and their country. By thisВ criterion alone, the televising of any trial is acceptable, since trials are intended to be open affairs. And in the case of O.J. Simpson's case, one can argue that watching a murder trial served the secondary purpose of educating the public on court processes, although Judge Lance Ito's move to allow cameras may have been serving himself more than the American public.

In the American media, we tend to give celebrity privacy little regard. Every scintilla of information is known about the love triangle of Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, so of course a celebrity accused of a crime should expect a deluge of media attention. However, in the Russian cases, the people tried are not celebrities, and might deserve more privacy, especially if wrongly accused.

Cases with fascinating circumstances—or, as evidenced in the Scott Peterson trial, well-to-do and good-looking victims—capture our attention more in America. But what makes these Russian court cases so special that they merit television coverage?

Up until now in my argument, there is little difference between the American and Russian cultural approaches. Trials are meant to be in the public forum, and whether or not they involve a celebrity or extraordinary circumstances, they can be covered in the media. In fact, a democracy is arguably better served by televising such trials. But media conduct is the major difference between the cultural approaches.

The American judicial system, with the noteworthy exception of Ito in the O.J. trial, has little tolerance for televised court proceedings. American murder cases similar to those televised in Russia—involving no celebrity and having only local importance—are usually covered only by local news. The only footage shown on the news is random footage of the accused, and anyone who is willing to talk to the press outside the courthouse. This contrasts with the Russian approach of showing the entire courtroom proceedings.

Why is this offensive to me, but evidently not to Russians or watchers in other CIS nations? Perhaps because the concept of court television in America is one of light-hearted frivolity; regardless of the trial's outcome, no one is sinking into financial ruin or going to jail for 25 years. An American, therefore, cannot take televised court proceedings seriously. Attaching such a glib process to something as important as a murder trial offends me, but maybe for a Russian who has never seen the circus atmosphere associated with Judge Judy, a televised trial doesn't necessarily seem less serious. I prefer to have this theory rather than think that every Russian who watches that show has no respect for the sanctity of life and wants quick justice doled out in 30-minute slices.

The Russian (and in this case, Moldovan) culture is similar to American culture, however, in one regard; the desire to be entertained. After I had told Maria that I was against showing such a serious trial on television, she said, "I agree with you. I don't like it either."

"But," I said, "you watch it every day."

Addendum: Wednesday, our neighbor at lunch with us. Maria, Dumitru and Gioric all watched the show intently. My host sister, Diana, sat in the corner reading a magazine and snickering when the older adults got excited at something said in the case. A promising sign for the future?


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