Casey Anthony judge wields gavel as press-basher

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Add Judge Belvin Perry to the long list of Americans who have had something to say about how the news media reported on the Casey Anthony murder trial.

One distinction: Perry presided over the trial, and he has ordered jurors’ names kept secret until October as a “cooling-off period,” while openly criticizing news coverage and calling for new limits on public access to public records in certain “rare” cases.

The judge is concerned that that jurors have received threats faced personal criticism for Anthony’s not-guilty verdict on most charges. Perry also laments that jurors are being contacted by people he said are pretending to be journalists, but in reality represent entertainment programs and reality shows.

Sympathy is understandable for the 12 citizens caught up the remarkable national frenzy around Anthony’s trial. Safety for jurors is a legitimate concern for the courts.

But transparency should be a hallmark of our justice system. Public trials conducted openly counter concerns about prosecutorial competence, fears of government conspiracy and complaints of judicial bias. Assessing the background, motives, biases and opinions of jurors — even if only after the verdicts — is an essential part of that transparency.

Yes, the delay is “only” until October. But while Perry’s order says juror safety is paramount, much of his 13-page court order is devoted to sweeping media-bashing in language rarely seen outside of a journalism review. If Perry had his way, he said, jurors’ identities would never be released.

“It was reported that television ratings for the trial were extraordinary. Clearly, the broadcast of an official and serious court proceeding such as this trial where a young girl was dead and her mother faced the death penalty devolved into cheap, soap-opera-like entertainment,” Perry wrote.

“Basically, court proceedings are no longer news but entertainment. Florida’s public records laws never were intended to further the media’s … bottom line.”

Perry didn’t just let the court record speak for him. In talking to lawyers during a hearing on the sealed names, the Florida Law Journal reported, Perry said, “While there are legitimate journalists and news organizations, there are people out there who have chosen for the purpose of what I call reality TV news, to do things to shock folks to get people to watch, and to juice up their ratings so their commercial time will go up and it’s about the almighty dollar.

“The days of watching what I call people like Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Douglas Edwards and people of that level, are almost gone. … The day of the 24-hour news cycle causes one to ponder and wonder what is journalism any more,” he said.

We’ll never know what Cronkite, Jennings, Edwards and other journalists of their eras would have said about the state of journalism in 2011, or about coverage of the Anthony trial. I would imagine they would support much of it and certainly criticize some of it.

But I’m also certain they would weigh in on the side of a free press — messy as it can become — to operate as it chooses with consumers as judges of their work. They would come down against closing public records because some of those seeking them aren’t deemed “legitimate” by a judge or other government official.

Changing the channel is an appropriate way for any of us to issue our own personal verdicts on news coverage as excessive or intrusive. Changing the law to permanently hide the names of jurors — even just in “rare” cases — is not.

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