24 hour news channels and TV talking heads have set their sights on their next news prey: the trial of 14-year-old Nathaniel Brazill. The cameras are rolling and the pundits are on message, but what kind of coverage is appropriate when a child is on trial?
The Brazil Trial
May 19, 2001
NATHANIEL BRAZILL: I was holding the gun in my hand. My finger was on the trigger. I was holding it with both hands, holding it kind of tightly. And that's when the gun went off.
MAN: Who pulled the trigger?
NATHANIEL BRAZILL: I did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The case of 14 year old Nathaniel Brazill was the latest TV trial to dominate cable news and its attendant punditry. If TV has created the global village, televised legal proceedings have created the global courtroom and network executives have assembled the television version of the Dream Team.
BOB GARFIELD:There's Geoffrey Feiger, famous for his defense of Jack Kevorkian, Marsha Clark who has coasted on the accomplishment of losing the O.J. case, and former prosecutors galore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:We're resigned to these digital Darrows being dusted off for each trial of the century, but in the case of Brazill it's particularly unsettling. Most papers don't even print the names of minor defendants so as not to further damage the child. This child's words and image are beamed all over the world as on the Fox Newschannel.
WOMAN: Nathaniel Brazill's demeanor on the witness stand, I think I'm not alone in saying could have easily hurt him with the jury because he did have that same kind of impassive, implacable expression.
WOMAN: But for example just now during the verdict, I wouldn't call him impassive. I thought he gave a very quizzical look each time the verdict was read as to one of the charges almost like what does it mean, what does it mean - I don't understand.
WOMAN: I'm - but you know I, I was looking at him as, as you were, and at one point he sort of gave this look l-- it liked like - tsk! - you know - almost like I'm being grounded!
BOB GARFIELD:The problem is that the pundit machinery cannot gear down when it's a child who stands accused. Quite the opposite. So here comes the standard pyrotechnics, cross-examination tactics to vilify the accused as seen on CNN's Crossfire.
WOMAN: He went home, collected a gun that he himself had loaded with 5 bullets; returned to school where he murdered his English teacher, point blank range. You tell me Geoffrey that you do not believe that that young man who is very smart by all accounts did not understand what he was doing? He said there I pulled the trigger. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MAN: No, I absolutely-- I absolutely-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
WOMAN: You don't think he knew he was murdering his teacher when he pulled that trigger? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
MAN: I ab--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A 14 year old boy, guilty or not, fodder for infotainment, and we are the voyeurs. In fact, more than voyeurs. With trial coverage we're asked by implication to be the ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Since most of us lack the assuredness of the TV pundits, it's not always a pleasant position to be in.