"CBS Reports: Miami -- The Trial That Sparked the Riots," is engrossing as hell, and the similarity doesn't end there, but the hour is also insufficiently illuminating. Correspondent Ed Bradley and producer Eric Saltzman fall back on the old TV news cliche about how the case involved raises "questions," but surely it does more than that. It demands answers.
Arthur McDuffie, a 33-year-old black insurance man, was stopped by a Miami patrolman last December for speeding on his motorcycle. According to the now foggy accounts of observers and participants, he was subsequently clubbed to the ground and repeatedly beaten with nightsticks. He died soon after. When a white jury in Tampa subsequently acquitted all the policemen involved in the incident, the predominantly black Liberty City section of Miami exploded in the worst riots of its history, with 17 dead and more than 200 injured when it was all over.
The "CBS Report" broadcast, at 10 tonight on Channel 9, makes use of actual taped courtroom footage of the trial that followed, available because Florida is still experimenting with the televising of trials. Unfortunately, CBS News doesn't make the most judicious use of this material, and it gets engulfed in the overly elaborate packaging that is fairly standard for network news documentaries.
By contrast, a documentary from WNET's Television Laboratory, "Deadly Force," about the death of an unarmed man at the hands of Los Angeles cops, was a more immediate and thorough study of the police brutality issue, though the case involved did not have the alarming racial overtones of the one in Miami.
With CBS News, we are never more than a few seconds away from the intervention of the commentator, except during a kind of postscript to the program -- a long, chilling, monologue by Alex Marrero, one of the officers who by eyewitness accounts took a very active role in the beating. He talks not about the death or the riots but about the pressures he felt as he tried to do his duties as a keeper of the peace and the circumstances that made that all but impossible.
"I mean, a police offiecer's life, after you become a police offiecer, you stay in your own little world," he says. "You become alienated from even your former friends, your family, everybody . . . I can understand a lot of the reasons why poverty is in the black community and it stems from way back. I can understand all that and cope with it, but how much can you cope with every day, day after day? After a point, like I say, we are human beings."
One may have absolutely no sympathy for Marrero himself and yet be struck and moved by the dilemma reflected in what he says. How are the whom they sense antagonism and hostility, and what hope do citizens have if they fell that those assigned by society to protect them are in fact their worst enemies?
On the surface, and to the outsider, the case against the cops did look "open and shut," as Bradley says, and it didn't take much stretching to see the acquittals as another example of justice, southern-style, in a tradition anything but proud.But the report gets into the complications, including what appears to have been extremely sloppy and poorly organized work by the prosecution. Even a lawyer for the defense sounds amazed at how badly the state bungled the case.
These and other extenuating circumstanes don't get quite the treatment and investigation one would hope for, however. Instead, especially early in the program, there is some dawdling and dodging. The courtroom footage is fascinating, and, during the scenes in which participants demonstrate for the jury how McDuffie was beaten, absolutely horrifying. But also included are several pre-trial scenes of McDuffie's mother, weeping at his funeral, weeping at the grave site, and reacting to the early news that only manslaughter indictments would be sought against the police.
Maybe it would go against The Producer's Code to leave footage of a wailing, grieving mother on the cutting room floor, but it would have been a wise course here, and the stock reminiscence of survivors, all attesting to how beloved the victim was when alive, serves only a dramatic, not an informational, function. Would McDuffie's fate be any less tragic if he hadn't been as well-liked and adored as relatives claim he was?
This "CBS Report" is not nearly so glib as many network news documentaries are, and it does bring up fundamental human and urban problems that are as awesome as any affecting civilized society. But something about the hour suggests a holding back and a fear to articulate the most harrowing implications -- that the situation in American cities borders on the hopeless; that Arthur McDuffie was only one more victim, as were those who died in the riots following his death, in a war that shows no sign of ending; that the problems of inner cities are no closer to being solved and no less volatile than they ever were.
Bradley and company open the case too briefly and too superficially before shutting it again.