On the Media: Sandusky Trial coverage avoids becoming circus-like

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If coverage of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse trial were a prime-time television pitch, it would be a potential ratings winner.

Testimony has involved graphic details of assault from eight alleged victims, now young men.

The defendant is a well-known figure in his small-town community, part of the iconic Penn State football program.

And yet, anyone seeking his fix of legal thriller tabloid journalism was doomed to disappointment. This wasn't the Circus Maximus of O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony, where television and online streaming lent the legal process an air of carnival festivity.

From the start, it was clear this Pennsylvania media circus would be different.

Certainly, the testimony from eight alleged victims was in turns horrifying and sad. But just like Penn State's unadorned, all-white football uniforms, the trial of Mr. Sandusky has been somewhat of a throwback. No cameras were allowed in the Centre County courthouse, which meant the only images available to the media were sketches by courtroom artists or brief glimpses of the defendant as he hustled from his car into the building each day.

In fact, video coverage has devolved into a highlights reel of men opening car doors, removing suit coats or briefcases, or carrying binders.

Mr. Sandusky's lead attorney, Joe Amendola, has skirted levels of Johnnie Cochran/Jose Baez grandstanding but comes across as mostly sane, with patches of "huh?" moments. Rushing past the crowds of media earlier in the week, he promised upcoming testimony would be "like a soap, you have to wait and see."

He later added, awkwardly, "Actually, it could be 'All My Children.' "

Mr. Sandusky's decision not to testify in his own behalf Wednesday was the final letdown for those intent on following the trial coverage. He could hardly be blamed.

Mr. Sandusky comes off as a genial grandfather type with a goofy, buck-toothed smile. He has given just one broadcast interview since the presentment made national news last November: with Bob Costas on NBC.

This was hailed by all as disastrous -- even before NBC recently released a previously un-aired segment that could be broadly construed as Mr. Sandusky admitting his alleged crimes.

Although the international news media are out in force in Bellefonte, no one is comparing their presence to that of Ms. Anthony's trial in Orlando last summer. MSNBC's Chris Matthews began one segment with, "Today begins the defense of Jerry Sandusky, such that it is."

The tone wasn't so much as implying the former coach's guilt as just "meh, let's see what he has to say for himself."

After a frenzy of indignation last fall, even HLN's Nancy Grace seems to have lost interest. This probably is a good thing. Her shows earlier this week, when the defense presented Mr. Sandusky's side of the case, mentioned the trial briefly then devoted the rest of the hour to other, more sensational topics. With video.

To be fair, at www.hlntv.com, the "Nancy Grace team" has been pretty good with trial updates in its "On the Radar" section.

Over on "Anderson Cooper 360," former Los Angeles assistant DA Marcia Clark and criminal defense attorney Mark Geragos were discussing the validity of Mr. Amendola's "Histrionic Personality Disorder" defense strategy.

On another night, Mr. Cooper was unrelentingly direct in interviewing Joyce Porter, one of the Sandusky character witnesses.

Locally, all three stations filed fairly interchangeable reports from Centre County. Thanks to Senior Judge John Cleland, who has directed the proceedings along a straightforward, no-nonsense path, not only has this been a fairly quick trial, but also one with little hoopla.

Such might not make for good television, but from a legal standpoint, it makes sense. What a novel concept.

And yet, the thrill-seekers won't have long to wait. George Zimmerman, charged with second-degree murder in the February death of Trayvon Martin, 17, awaits trial. His bond hearing is scheduled for June 29.

It's in Florida, where cameras are welcome in the courtroom.


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published June 22, 2012 12:00 AM


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