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DVD Review: Celebrity Trials in the Media

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The premise of Celebrity Trials in the Media (2012) sure sounded intriguing. In part the description states that the film “Confronts the need to deliver big ratings that drive advertising revenue, and a new definition of news. Celebrity trials are big business, and ethical barriers are shattered.” The DVD has just been released by Cinema Libre, a company who are something of a brand name in my book. This year alone has seen the release of three excellent features, Fidel; No Subtitles Necessary; and Teen A Go-Go. And those are just the ones I have seen – they have released quite a few others as well. With Cinema Libre there is an eclecticism and taste that I find most appealing.

Having said all of that, my expectations for Celebrity Trials were probably a little high. The film is certainly well-done, but it is not exactly what I thought it would be. The movie is almost entirely focused on the 2004 Kobe Bryant rape trial. Not the trial itself mind you, but of the media circus surrounding it. As a look at what goes on behind the scenes at these gargantuan events, the film is pretty interesting. Off camera, the reporters are a hilariously grumpy bunch.

For all of the hoopla surrounding the case, the whole thing pretty much came down to day after day of shots of Bryant walking in and out of the courthouse. What little actual activity that took place inside was pretty boring as well. The reporters were expected to keep all of the non-events interesting, even though it was a rare occasion when anything of consequence occurred.

As reporter Heidi Hemmet asks, “I don’t see how anyone would think that this would be an interesting story for any viewer in the whole world. Who wants to hear a story about nothing?” It is fascinating to watch her go from this perfectly reasonable assessment of the situation, to delivering her on-camera report. What she actually offers up on camera is a whole bunch of nothing, yet somehow she manages to make it seem like real news. It is bizarre, but she shows an amazing ability to be create a story out of literally nothing

As anyone who remembers the trial knows, it was not televised. In Celebrity Trials it is explained that the decision to allow cameras in or not is discretionary. Evidently in the Bryant case, a poll was conducted. The response was an astounding 70% against. That is a pretty emphatic reaction. Even more revealing were the results of a poll about whether or not the trial was considered newsworthy at all. Only 17% of those polled thought it was.

So it is not just me. In fact, it seems that the vast majority of the population thinks this type of “news” is a joke. Yet it goes on and on. That was eight years ago, and if anything, the situation has gotten worse. The other day I opened up my Yahoo account, and the lead “story” was Kim Kardashian’s Halloween costume. Good Lord, who the hell cares!

“Where is the news value of watching the same shot of a celebrity walking in and out of a courthouse day after day?” is a pretty relevant quote that comes in the last five minutes of the film. The documentary answers by pointing to the hungry beast, the 24-hour a day news channels that need constant feeding.

I remember in the days after 9/11, phrases such as “the world has changed forever,” and “this is the end of irony” being bandied about. I knew it was hogwash then, and within weeks was proven right. The lament that America is being “dumbed down” is heard constantly from pundits. Do you think that kindergarten journalism about (plug in today’s famous idiot here) might be a contributing factor?

There is another quote in the movie which I found revealing. A reporter confides “We used to be told to write our copy at an eighth grade level. Recently (2004), we were told to adjust to a seventh-grade level. Eight years have passed since then, I wonder if we are being spoon-fed stories at a fifth-grade level. My earlier “kindergarten journalism” statement was meant sarcastically, but give them a few years, and we just may get there.

The trials and tribulations of Lindsay Lohan, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson and others are just about the only news we get anymore, besides box-office receipts. You literally cannot get away from it without completely unplugging. Bryant’s trial was just another (basically now forgotten) chapter. It seems as if those in the news feel it is beyond their pay-grade to report a story that might actually have some value in the real world.

My difficulty with Celebrity Trials is that I had hoped for a bit more depth, and historical perspective rather than a behind the scenes look at Bryant‘s trial. We all know that the networks, or so-called news-magazines such as Time will never go near the topic of the sorry state of journalism as it stands today. At the very least, this film brings up the subject for wider consideration.

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About Greg Barbrick