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Something cold and squishy

Peterson on Trial 

Something cold and squishy

Oh Little Miss Justice, you coy, wanton, oft-violated Jezebel, desired by all, available for a price. So elusive, so used, so akin to your sordid and justifiably defamed cousin, politics, both little more than rattly, wired-together vending machines. Drop a nickel in the slot and out pops the candy bar. Easy. Just remember that sometimes you really have to keep stuffing the damned things in to get the required results (along with a good shaking).

No one who harbors any feeling for the human predicament can, upon learning the details of the Michael Peterson case, wrest from their hearts that it is laden with authentic tragedy--that word reduced by the Nooz to a parroted utterance, a cheapened and meaningless sound to be cast forth accompanied with the expected small cloud of concern on the face of a talking head (before a pleasant little tale, say, of a hot dog eating contest).

Likewise, no one possessed of a healthy mind would dive unbidden into this sort of sordid mess really deserving of page 14. Just another murder in the land that perfected it. Something cold and squishy you step on in the dark.

The lurid, absurd and surreal qualities of The Great American Celebrity Murder Trial reduce emotion to inconsequence. For more evidence, visualize a certain type of retiree's companion, CourtTV, providing gavel to gavel coverage for a new American pastime: Lying on a couch, munching bon-bons and watching the ruination of human lives, whole families--exactly the sort of story illustrating one of the less attractive aspects of America (and humans), an unhealthy attention to what should be conducted with much less of the typical breathless scrutiny these cases command.

I will be covering the case for The Independent, and the main foci will likely be the scramblings in the press gallery and the machinations of the legal professionals. If all you want are the "facts," watch TV and read the papers. That stuff is in the capable hands of an army of professionals; we will present full coverage of the absurd--just another job.

***

The box. Early on, before anything, we reconnoitered the venue, the newly gussied up Durham courthouse fifth-floor courtroom, silent and empty. The bailiff, intrigued by something so quaint as a courtroom artist, offered all sorts of access, walking us around front of the bar, making helpful suggestions ("Do you want to sit here?"). Made us think we really were somebody.

During an early hearing, when something really happened, even I was surprised by the mob that showed, a mob, I might add that made the positioning for the trial much more complicated. Suddenly, we were knocked back a bit by the video teams' miles of cable, squads of technicians, operators, reporters, heavy cameras and tripods, uplink trucks grinding away at the curb, CourtTV, crime writers, several newspapers as well as a gaggle of French film makers, all vying for position in very confined conditions, not to distract, in the process, the jury.

The court established a small viewing area right next to the jury box and ahead of the bar. All sorts of ideas on how to conceal the journalists were flying around, most of them kinda dumb. Until Olason used some connections to shake out some technicians from Manbites Dog, who fashioned a box of sorts, a cloaking device comically resembling a Punch and Judy stage (where, seemed to me, various versions of the crime could be reenacted for the jury), small enough for two people to get really sick of each other in about five minutes. Right off, after the thing was installed, Olason got bushwhacked.

See, in A Big Deal like this, everyone involved will gleefully stomp anything that gets in their way. Olason's simple needs are an occasional teeny tiny little patch for him and his pencil box. Problem is only two people get to ride in the clown car at once (there being a robot camera to serve the television industry)--the French cameraman and whomever else. So, sure enough, the photo editors at The N&O and the Durham Herald Sun conspired to completely lock him out. That's right: Olason arranges a concealed station point to collect images--and the big dawgs drag it off, tearing it to pieces, yelping "mine, mine"--reducing Olason to drawing the backs of heads.

"It is important that we don't miss anything," went the reasoning of one editor. This is going to go on all summer and we can't get a slot in a rotation because of some editor's vivid fantasy about a Perry Mason breakdown on the stand, the Benzadrine-maddened maid weeping, "I did it, I loved him and I'd do it again. Yes, I did it." SHOCK AT PETERSON TRIAL.

Cognitive dissonance at its best--that being when one makes adjustments to thought patterns in order to avoid a collision with reality, reality being that most courtroom trials are marvels of inaction. We're talking about a whole lot of nothing, the minute by minute live feed of CourtTV being about as gripping as cleaning shower grout.

So that's where we are. A week to burn with Judge Hudson at a judicial retreat, prosecutor Freda Black off to Germany to dig (no pun) into the Ratliff case, embarking from RDU waving bye-bye to the cameras, clutching a small white teddy bear, looking for all the world like a deadly version of Elizabeth Taylor.

Journalistically, where Olason and I are vis a vis the Crews quote is unknown. It sure ain't love, but being as we are pipsqueaks among the legion of Serious Journalists preparing to descend on Durham at the end of the month, I don't see as how it could possibly be fear. We're nothing, a cup blowing down the road, the wind in the trees.

"Well, The Independent marches to a different drum," said another editor.

"Unlike The News & Observer which marches in lockstep," muttered Olason.

It is going to be one long-ass summer.

The Government has made small slips before, of course. It has made minor errors of economic policy. It has occasional deported the wrong people. It has gambled on the wrong defence system. It invaded the wrong country. All these peccadilloes could be forgiven... But now a member of the Government has slept with the wrong woman, and as a consequence severely strained this country's newsprint resources.

--Michael Frayn, commenting on the Profumo case, The Observer, 1963. EndBlock

  • Something cold and squishy

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