THE SUPREME COURT'S decision on the televising of criminal trials could not have come at a more interesting moment. Television had just provided an example of its power. Its coverage of the return of the hostages transformed an exciting bit of history into a national spectacular, changing the very nature of the welcoming events as the story was told. Would the arrival of television cameras at the trial of, say, a Bernard Welch have a similar impact on the administration of justice?
We do not ask the question to indicate that the justices were wrong in ruling there is no inherent constitutional reason to bar television and still cameras from courtrooms. Any other decision would have ignored reality. Television news is more a part of everyday life now than newspaper news was when the Constitution was written. There is no substantial evidence that the tools of its reporters -- cameras and recorders -- automatically alter the behavior of all those on whom they are trained.
But there is a great difference, as Chief Justice Burger made clear, between barring those tools from all courtrooms and permitting them into one particular trial. While sanctioning the experiments with courtroom television that are under way in many states, the justices reserved to the judges (and, ultimately, to themselves) the right to exclude the cameras if television coverage threatens the fairness of a specific criminal trial.
The issue on which the justices were primarily focusing -- the presence of cameras in courtrooms -- is not the one that raises the most difficult questions about televised trials.Those flow from the way in which the pictures taken by the cameras are used. It was not the television coverage during scheduled news programs that transformed the return of the hostages into a nationally shared experience but the live coverage of events in Algeria, Germany and New York state. Would the live coverage of a major criminal trial, like the one now under way in suburban New York, create the same kind of intense, personal relationship between viewers and those on whom the cameras were focused? If it did, would that have an impact on the quality of justice? Will those viewing the live testimony of a victim of a violent crime get the same queasy feeling many got lost Sunday when the cameras penetrated from long range the "private" reunions of the hostages and their families?
We don't know the answers to these, and other, questions about cameras in the courtrooms. But their existence is reason enough for trial courts and television stations to be cautious in using their now-established freedom to experiment. Televised trials or, even better, televised arguments of major cases before the Supreme Court could be important tools in educating a wider public about our judicial system. Or they could be the instruments that undermine the quality of the justice that system dispenses.
It will take a while, and considerably more experience than there has yet been, to see how these prospects balance out. That may be why the Supreme Court's current verdict in favor of cameras in the court was crouched in terms that leave future judges and justices considerable flexibility.