The Supreme Court just voted to allow television cameras into the courtroom. It might be one of the most far-reaching decisions the Burger Court has ever made, and possibly the most frightening as far as protecting the innocent goes.
Let me explain. Anyone who has had any exposure on television knows that everyone who has seen you recognizes you, but no one can remember what you said or did. For 15 years people who watched them every night didn't know Huntley from Brinkley. I had the good fortune to be on "60 Minutes" in a friendly piece done by Mike Wallace -- but to this day people can't remember if I was the scheming real estate developer in Arizona, or the guy who was smuggling in illegal aliens from Mexico.
With the advent of cable television and its eventual choice of 50 channels, we have to assume that courtroom trials will provide some of the best entertainment on television. Therefore some smart cable TV operators will plug into the courts and get an entire channel of free-time shows.
Let us assume that a defendant, Arnold Gullible, is being tried by a jury in New York for refusing to pay for an Amtrak train ride, because there was no heat in the car and the train was two hours late.
After three days Arnold is found innocent of the charges and freed. All this has been on television.
The next day Arnold is walking to his office and a lady on the street says to her companion, "Look, there's the man we saw on television who held up the liquor store in the Bronx."
"No, that's not the man who held up the liquor store. He's the one who mugged the old man in the park."
Arnold keeps walking.
He stops off at his bank to cash a check. The guard immediately recognizes him and draws his gun. "You're not going to pull another bank robbery here," the guard tells him. "I say you on TV and I couldn't believe the judge would give you a suspended sentence."
"I'm not a bank robber," Arnold protests. "You saw me on television in regard to the case in which I refused to pay a train ticket."
"Don't tell me what I saw on television. You were on Monday night."
"That was another trial."
"Get out of the bank, I don't ever want to see you here again," the guard tells him.
Arnold leaves in a daze. He's stopped on the street by a man. "Hey, Arnold, I'm a big fan of yours. Anyone who could embezzle $7 million from his company and wind up with a hung jury is my kind of guy. How about your autograph?"
"I didn't embezzle $7 million from my company."
"Okay, so it was more. I bet 5-to-1 you'd beat the rap. Just put your John Hancock here on my business card and sign it to my son Billy."
Arnold signs it. A crowd gathers and asks for autographs. "Who is it?" a lady wants to know.
"It's 'Son of Sam,'" someone else says. "They've just let him out."
Arnold manages to break through the crowd and make it to his office where all his friends are shaking his hand. One says, "Arnold, I don't want to be critical but you should look at the camera more when you're talking." Another says, "You looked awfully nervous. Were you nervous?" A third says, "I didn't see the show but my wife said your lawyer was a dummy and if she had been on the jury she would have given you the maximum."
The boss calls Arnold in. "We're going to have to let you go. I've had calls from three customers who said they don't want to do business with a company who hires wife-beaters."
"I'm not a wife-beater," Arnold protests. "I just refused to pay a train ticket."
I know it and you know it, but the TV audiences don't know it. They got you mixed up with a fellow who was tried right after you. We can't afford to have a bad image. You're going to have to pack it in."
Arnold winds up driving a bus, but his superior warns him, "We know you're an ex-con, and we're going to give you a break. But one false move and I'll call your parole office, and you'll go back to the slammer where you belong."