Print

Lloyd Chiasson, Jr. (ed.) (1997). The Press on Trial: Crimes and Trials as Media Events. (Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood). xi + 227 pp. ISBN 0-275-95936-8, $22.95 (paper), $59.95 (hardbound). Chapter source references, bibliography, index, author and contributor bios.

This work is rare, indeed. It is a reference book that is fun to read. After reading Chiasson's brief introduction about the relationship between the "Globbida Globbida" machine in the Jack Lemmon movie How to Murder Your Wife and the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, how could it be otherwise? As Chiasson says, "the true American theater is the courtroom."

The 16 trials that are examined in essays by 14 scholars (mostly journalism professors, but some historians) are the cases of: John Peter Zenger (1735) (essay by Gene Wiggins), the Boston Massacre (1770) (Carol Sue Humphrey), John Brown (1859) (Bernell Tripp), the Haymarket Riot (1886) (Kittrell Rushing), Lizzie Borden (1893) (Donald R. Avery), Harry K. Thaw (1907) (Janet S. Boyle), the Chicago Black Sox (1921) (Chiasson), John Scopes (1925) (Chiasson), the Scottsboro Boys (1931) (Michael Maher), Bruno Hauptmann (1935) (Alfred N. Delahaye), Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs (1949, 1951) (Joseph McKerns), the Chicago Seven (1969) (Arthur J. Kaul), Charles Manson (1970) (Robert Dardenne), Lt. William Calley (1970) (James Stewart) and O.J. Simpson (1995) (Paul Thaler).

Even before one reads the concluding chapter (by Maher and Chiasson), the intertwined roles of the media and the courts have become much clearer. As the last words of the book say, "Spectacular trials achieve such notoriety because they touch a tender nerve in the public psyche. The label 'trial of the century' tells us a lot more about the century than it does about the trial."

The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2004 (15:2), p.31 .