Bring in the Clowns

While most Americans will do almost anything to avoid jury duty, 250 prospective jurors in California are hoping that they will be selected. I'm talking about the prospective jurors in the Michael Jackson case. For the lucky twelve, "serving" in this year's "trial of the century" is like hitting the lottery. Interest in the upcoming trial is so great that Santa Barbara County officials are charging media outlets up to $800,000 for access to the courthouse. This could be an honest attempt to recoup costs, but in the current media frenzy, it's easy to suspect that everybody associated with the trial is looking to cash in. After all, we've already witnessed a judicial first: a court-approved commercial for the defendant urging people to keep an "open mind." Then there was Michael Jackson's father who blamed "racism" for his son's troubles -- a claim made especially ridiculous by the fact that his son is the only known recipient of what appears to be racial-transplant surgery. The prosecution isn't covering itself with honor either. The judge cited their leaks in his decision to allow Jackson to make the commercial. Fortunately, there won't be televised coverage of the type that turned the O. J. Simpson trial into a combination soap opera and courtroom drama. Unfortunately, "E! Entertainment Television" will do a nightly re-enactment of the day's proceedings with actors portraying the principals and reading from the transcripts. E! Entertainment insists on calling the show a "public service." Right. Just as there's no shortage of media excess, there's no shortage of media critics decrying that excess. Many of them, however, work for cable news networks that spend an hour a week criticizing media excess and the other 167 hours adding to it. If the only problem with the media circus was that it was unseemly or tacky, I wouldn't care. I'd just tune it out. But turning a court case into a soap opera and prospective jury duty into the equivalent of an American Idol audition isn't only unseemly; it's corrosive of the legal system. We are so accustomed to the protections afforded by our legal system that few of us appreciate what Justice Sandra Day O'Connor called "The Majesty of the Law." In fact, in an ironic age like ours, that expression seems almost maudlin or quaint. But ask people who have lived without the law's protection, for whom arbitrary government action is a real threat. They'll tell you that calling the rule of law "majestic" is anything but excessive. The idea that every member of a society, even the ruler, is subject to a clear and understood body of law is arguably Western civilization's greatest accomplishment. Treating the law as the stuff of entertainment undermines our respect for the institutions that make and enforce the law. The media becomes more important than justice. To contend otherwise is to describe a parallel universe I'm not familiar with. And since law, like the rest of self-government, requires our informed participation, anything that turns jury duty into somebody's "big break" is bad news. It's just not the kind of news the clowns in the Santa Barbara circus understand.


Chuck Colson


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