n I, Tonya, actor Bobby Cannavale, playing an exploitation journalist, deadpans to the camera, “Well I was a reporter for Hard Copy, a pretty crappy show that the legitimate news outlets looked down upon – and then became.” There is a direct line in the American media starting in the early ’90s — with the coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial as infotainment — that runs through famous celebrity criminal and civil cases such as Michael Jackson and Tonya Harding to the current state of American media culture and the current occupant of the White House. Right now, no film or TV show demonstrates this transformation better than the six-part documentary miniseries on Netflix, Trial by Media. Quoting a famous line from the Red Letter Media Star Wars breakdowns: “You may have not noticed this, but your brain did.”
Trial by Media examines six cases made famous by how they were covered in the newly birthed 24-hour news cycle, when the immediate goal was to keep as many eyeballs glued to the television as possible, for as long as possible. (Netflix wasn’t the first outlet to compete against sleep.) In Big Dan’s, we see CNN reveal the identity of a rape victim during cross-examination; it was the trial that served as the basis of the Best Actress-winning role for Jodie Foster in The Accused. The victim said she felt vilified afterward; the judge said he regretted his decision to allow her name to be revealed. Today, this would probably be just another normal cable news fuck-up and would be gone within two days in favor of whatever dumb thing President Donald Trump said on Twitter.
The first episode, Talk Show Murder, is all you really need to watch to see what officially led to the collision of dumpster fires that are our media and politics culture today. The episode deals with the fatal shooting of Scott Amedure, a gay man from Pittsburgh. Amedure was shot and killed three days after appearing on The Jenny Jones Show by known acquaintance Jonathan Schmitz. Prior to the shooting, Amedure and a female friend had invited Schmitz onto The Jenny Jones Show where it was to be revealed that Amedure had a secret crush on him. Schmitz, clearly stunned and humiliated by the surprise, told the audience that he was not gay, but overall the setting was cordial and entertaining. Jones encouraged Amedure to indulge his fantasies over Schmitz, and the crowd enjoyed every minute of it. The episode never aired.
Schmitz, after shooting Amedure at his trailer home, drove to a gas station, called the police and confessed to the 911 dispatcher. Schmitz was convicted of second-degree murder. But it was the Amedure family’s civil suit against the producers of The Jenny Jones Show, which was broadcast on Court TV and spawned a dozen cable-news hits with celebrity power attorneys like Geoffrey Fieger, that forever altered the national news landscape.
Names like Jones, Ricki Lake, Montel Williams, and of course, Jerry Springer rose to ratings prominence. The more salacious the guests — trailer-park Nazis whose pre-teen children join gangs and have sex would be the platonic ideal — or the premise — “I’m cheating on you with your brother and you’ll never guess what these paternity tests reveal!” — led to a media culture willing to exploit any situation no matter how outlandish for the sake of leering audiences. It was chum in the water and a departure from Oprah or Martha Stewart lifestyle talk TV. There was no stopping the Running Man-ification of popular network TV, and it was only a matter of time before it spilled into cable news.
The Amedure shooting could have been the moment that producers and networks hit the brakes. Even if the screaming crowds wanted blood, they could have put a stop to it all. But then came the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which landed right inside the White House and gave license for broadcasters and cable nets alike to snigger about oral sex. Producers hit the gas pedal and have never really taken their foot off. These reality-based talk shows gave way to a multitude of reality-based courtroom shows. Then a bombardment of prime-time reality shows in the early 2000s ultimately followed the same model, going from innocent competition to a salacious battle of egos for money and even romance.
What started out as a relatively tame competition on Survivor became a battle of personalities on The Apprentice. Then in 2016, the reality show found its way to the national election, and once again media could not get enough. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” was a famously damning quote by then CBS President Les Moonves in response to the ratings bonanza Donald Trump was bringing to them. Jeff Zucker, one of the architects of the reality boom in the 2000s and the man most credited with Trump’s success at NBC, was now the boss at CNN, and they stood by while Donald Trump happily turned the 2016 primaries into The Jerry Springer Show. Trump brought his populist brand and WrestleMania persona onto the debate stage, and just like a staged fight between a dysfunctional family of cousins fighting over a woman or a child, they all encouraged it and continued to enable it every day. How much Trump’s $4 billion or so in free media helped him capture the White House is hard to say — but it certainly didn’t hurt.
Where this ends for our media, our politics and our country is nowhere good. But just as Jones, Springer and their enablers taught us, the bigger the catastrophe, the more people are willing to tune in. So, buckle up, because they are not about to let us run out of disasters anytime soon.
Stephen L. Miller is a Brooklyn-based writer and has contributed to National Review Online, Fox News, & Spectator US. He hosts the Versus Media Podcast on Patreon and his Twitter handle is @redsteeze.