David Hiltbrand
December 23, 1991 12:00 PM

The William Kennedy Smith rape trial has revealed just how much our perceptions of courtroom procedures have been distorted by decades of TV lawyer shows. There were no Perry Masonic surprise witnesses, no blurted confessions. Instead one very limited camera observed prosecutor Moira Lasch, defense attorney Roy Black and their teams waging trench warfare, digging away for minute inconsistencies and impugning the credentials of each other’s expert witnesses. Reality again proved to be more tedious—and far more explicit and time-consuming—than TV could easily bear.

The long delays, conferences and minutiae about varieties of grass and meteorological conditions made for laborious viewing. CNN’s daytime viewership peaked at more than 3 million during the plaintiffs testimony, though it was enough just to watch the channel’s nightly recap with Bernard Shaw. Even CNN seemed to lose interest in all but the star witnesses. As a botanist droned away on the stand, trial anchor Charles Jaco quipped, “Testimony like this is why they have more than one attorney at each table: so they can keep each other awake.”

CNN made a disconcerting habit of breaking away for commercials without regard to what was happening in the court—often in the middle of a line of questioning. And Jaco kept prodding the channel’s two capable legal analysts, Abbe Lowell and Greta Van Susteren, to declare which side had won each encounter.

With the line between news and entertainment on TV growing increasingly nebulous, it was almost inevitable that the events in the courtroom would be judged on their theatrical value.

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