A ban on cameras in federal court hasn’t stopped WOIO-TV in Cleveland, Ohio from giving viewers a firsthand look at the scandal and intrigue unfolding during a local politician’s corruption trial. But the coverage isn’t coming from your average television reporter — instead, the station is using a fuzzy, buck-toothed squirrel puppet.

Yes, you read that correctly. A puppet. A squirrel puppet. In a suit and tie. (To see for yourself, click here.)

Calling the expletive-laced discussions about herpes, prostitution, gambling, and mob connections recounted during Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora’s trial “material for satire,” the station’s news director, Dan Salamone, decided to create “The Puppet’s Court” with the help of local puppeteers. The station has already aired several “Puppet’s Court” segments featuring not only the squirrel newscaster but also a puppet in a judge’s robe, puppets yawning in the jury box, and puppets scheming together on the telephone, reenacting Dimora’s alleged criminal behavior using transcripts of the wiretapped conversations prosecutors have played in court.

“News organizations have always had some form of lampooning or satire,” Salamone told Time.com’s NewsFeed in a recent interview, explaining that the segments are aired at the end of the newscast with the other “lighter” stories. “There’s a place for it and I think we have it in the right place.”

It bothers me that, although these segments can be entertaining, they also seem to belittle the formality and importance of federal court proceedings. Yet I have to remember that the station is using its First Amendment freedom of expression to depict the proceedings in this way in large part because the Judicial Conference of the United States has decided that policy concerns should sometimes override the First Amendment freedom of press in federal court.

Though many state courts allow media access, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 53 has expressly banned media coverage in federal criminal trials since 1946. The judicial conference adopted an official policy in 1972 that extended the ban to civil trials as well. The reason: to avoid witness intimidation and the potential for lawyers and judges to feel pressured to speak in “sound bites” for the camera. (The ban was lifted in appellate courts in 1996, given that those courts do not use live witnesses.)

There have never been cameras in the US Supreme Court, though sound recordings of oral arguments are posted at www.oyez.org. The justices have long been opposed to video recordings of proceedings, despite pleas from First Amendment advocates who believe in government transparency and equal access to our court system. C-SPAN has asked the Court to consider allowing cameras for the arguments on President Obama’s health care overhaul for this reason, but it has not been granted that permission.

However, lower courts may be headed toward a change in policy soon. The Judicial Conference began a three-year pilot study allowing camera recordings of civil cases in fourteen federal districts across the country. I am in favor of at least exploring the idea, because like former US Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, I think that the “idea that cameras would transform the court into ‘Judge Judy’ is ludicrous.” In any case, I don’t know if a Judge Judy-type atmosphere is any worse than the fuzzy puppet circus we’re apparently stuck with today.

– Lauren Gregory

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5 Responses to Ban on Cameras in Court Leads Cleveland News Station to Get Creative With Puppets

  1. Samara Pals says:

    This is even more interesting because the Health Care arguments just concluded, and, even without the cameras, the public seems well aware of various pundits opinions on how the arguments went. I tend to think that the justice system should not be reality TV and I that criminal trials in particular would be highly sensationalized. However, (considering how many people watch C-SPAN) I wonder how much of an effect it would have on Supreme Court, other appellate courts, or more mundane trials. The Health Care arguments were not televised in the end, but the issue itself has been so politically charged that those who cared to know listened to the oral arguments and those who did not want to take the time to listen could just read the responses. I think in most cases the cameras would not make that much of a difference, not because people do not play to them but because there are few issues in which the public is engaged enough to pay attention. Those issues that do pique the national interest will be scrutinized with or without the cameras, but I think we should try to keep cameras out of the courtroom, at least for now.

  2. Mike W. says:

    I have to agree with Joanna. Although I’m sympathetic to the public’s interest in observing criminal trials, news cameras often have a deleterious effect on the parties and witnesses. Last summer, for example, I watched an elected prosecutor make an sickening spectacle of his closing argument to appease broadcast journalists. He occasionally strode toward the camera while saying things that almost amounted to prosecutorial misconduct.

    I understand the value of allowing cameras in courtrooms, but I think that value is often more imagined than concrete. Keeping trials open to reporters and other members of the community preserves transparency and the public’s right to know. We don’t need cameras.

  3. Caitlin Angelette says:

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with Joanna’s assessment. After all, this is not just a criminal trial, it’s a criminal trial of a public official. The puppets are certainly one of the more… ridiculous things I’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t get away from the fact that (A) the trial is still public record, (B) the public has a very convincing right to know and (C) the local news is a visual medium that prefers images over information dumping. Perhaps we should wonder what our other options are, in regard to the public’s right to know versus the search for truth?

  4. Andrea Verney says:

    What an interesting interplay of interests and concerns this area presents. The addition of state court decisions regarding whether or not to allow cameras during trial only adds complexity. For example, just this week Illinois began an experimental program allowing the use of cameras in trials on a circuit-by-circuit basis. Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride defended the program, explaining, “The provisions of this new policy keep discretion in the chief circuit judge and the trial judge to assure that a fair and impartial trial is not compromised, yet affords a closer look at the workings of our court system to the public through the eyes of the electronic news media and news photographers.” For more information, check out: http://www.courthousenews.com/2012/01/24/43296.htm

  5. Joanna Collins says:

    What an interesting story! It seems in very poor taste for a news station to satirize a criminal trial, even one that involves such salacious details. However, it is a rather clever way to draw attention to the issue of cameras in courtrooms. While enhancing the transparency of courtroom proceedings is a worthy goal, I am concerned about the impact of cameras on witnesses. I find that, in general, people act differently in front of a camera – I personally think people have a greater sense of self-awareness when there is a camera on them, and I fear that witnesses will not be completely forthright or genuine during taped testimony. Because the ultimate goal of a trial is to discover the truth, I tend to believe that public access should be a secondary consideration.