Am I the only one who wonders what has become of the media? Even the supposedly reputable news outlets have become glorified tabloids. As much as I dislike Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, and yes, even Keith Olbermann, there is one “newscaster” that I reserve the bulk of my anger for: Nancy Grace.
To put it simply, Nancy Grace is bad for America. CNN’s website describes the program as “television's only justice themed/interview/debate show, designed for those interested in the breaking crime news of the day.” I describe it as a threat to the integrity of our criminal justice system.
The recent coverage of the Annie Le murder at Yale is a prime example of what I am referring to. It was a heinous, truly sickening crime, and the culprit obviously deserves the harshest of punishments. However, the media in general, and especially Ms. Grace, often forget that defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. They overlook the Sixth Amendment guarantee to a fair trial (and, specifically, a trial “by an impartial jury”) and the due process guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The media began its assault on alleged murderer Raymond Clark III immediately upon his being named a person of interest. For starters, news quickly leaked that Mr. Clark had failed a lie detector test. Some news outlets even used the above picture of Mr. Clark dressed as a devil for Halloween. Many news shows then began hypothesizing what Mr. Clark’s motive was. I recall a guest psychologist stating that Mr. Clark was clearly a misogynist. Others claimed that he had an infatuation with Asians, as evidenced by his membership to the Asian Awareness Club in high school, or that he perhaps suffered from jealously due to the fact that he never attended any college (never mind a prestigious one such as Yale). Unfortunately, this speculative drivel was being fed to the potential juror pool.
Obviously the defendant’s constitutional rights must be balanced against the First Amendment guarantee to free speech and press. The trial judge does have an affirmative duty to limit prejudice, whether by delaying trial, changing venue, or conducting a searching voir dire. See Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333, 362-63 (1966). If such a duty is not fulfilled, there is serious risk that a conviction will be reversed. Id. Justice Burger acknowledged that “[t]he extraordinary protections afforded by the First Amendment carry with them something in the nature of a fiduciary duty to exercise the protected rights responsibility.” Nebraska Press Ass’n v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 560 (1976). He went on to explain that “[i]t is not asking too much to suggest that those who exercise First Amendment rights in newspapers or broadcasting enterprises direct some effort to protect the rights of an accused to a fair trial by unbiased jurors.” Id. Ultimately, however, Justice Burger held a gag order on the press unconstitutional, and it appears that Nancy Grace has a constitutional right to spew as much garbage as she would like. Id. at 568.
My question is this: Even though journalists such as Ms. Grace have a constitutional right to broadcast information that threatens a defendant’s right to a fair trial, do they not have a moral duty to avoid doing so? Go ahead and call me an idealistic law student, but I believe that just because you have a constitutional right to engage in certain types of action doesn’t necessarily mean that such action isn’t morally reprehensible. Whatever happened to journalistic integrity?