Documentary - Trial By Media

Some of the most dramatic trials of all time are examined in a new documentary series Trial By Media, placing the emphasis on how the media may have impacted verdicts, now available on Netflix. Find out more...

In our modern media landscape where real courtroom dramas have increasingly been transformed into a form of entertainment, the Netflix documentary series Trial by Media reflects on some of the most dramatic and memorable trials in recent history. Since televised coverage introduced a new emphasis on creative storytelling and showmanship into the legal system, the courtroom has never been the same. Over six compelling parts, Trial by Media explores the many ways in which the press have contributed to reshaping public perception about guilt or innocence before, during or after a trial.

The team that assembled to create this compelling series is made up of an all-star line-up of award-winning producers and directors. Steven Brill is a journalist and author who founded Court TV, as well as the magazines ‘The American Lawyer’ and ‘Brill’s Content,’ among others. Brill recalls how the seed of the idea for the series came to be. “About two years ago I was thinking about all the trials that I knew because I had covered them in one way or another,” he says. “I realized that there was a great way to convey these famous, and maybe not-so-famous, trials in a context that would allow us to not only talk about the trial but also capture something about the history of that time. I then realized that when it came to examining trials that I hadn’t been involved in, there was one other person who thinks about these things in the same way that I do. That is Jeffrey Toobin.”

Jeffrey Toobin is a staff writer for ‘The New Yorker,’ chief legal analyst for CNN, and one of the most recognized and admired legal journalists in the country. “Court TV created the whole industry of covering trials on television, so Steve really is the pioneer in this field,” he says. “What Court TV did was cover trials live and in real-time. What we tried to do in this series is to distill them into hour-long dramas. The idea that the courtroom is a television studio and the courtroom is a theater, that's something Steve was really the first person to recognize, and he turned it into both a business and something Americans recognize.”

As the creative team continued to develop the concept for the series, Brill thought about a production company who might be a perfect fit for the show, given their history of telling stories that ride the line between entertainment and purpose, and who also have a passion for examining ideas that are important in our society today. “I had known George Clooney because of some involvement he had with my magazine ‘Brill’s Content’, so I emailed George and his team at Smokehouse about the idea and they really liked it.”

Clooney and his partner at Smokehouse Grant Heslov returned the compliment, saying “Jeffrey Toobin and Steve Brill are two of the smartest legal journalists in the game, and as chroniclers and analysts, their knowledge of the US trial system is unparalleled. In the beginning stages of this project, we discussed that trials in the US play out like theater, and we were all interested in exploring the media’s profound influence over that process. The goal was to create a series that was not only entertaining, but also shed some insight into the whole messy business of our trial system. Along with our partners at Supper Club and six terrific directors, we tell the stories of six diverse and wild cases whose issues and themes resonate even more strongly today.”

When it came to directing the six episodes, McGinn explains the approach that the producers felt was important right from the start. “We always knew that we wanted to have individual directors for each episode, and we wanted to bring in a lot of diverse and interesting points of view into the series. The idea was about getting as many different perspectives infused into the show as possible. From Yance Ford, who was Oscar-nominated for Strong Island and directed our Rod Blagojevich episode, to Tony Yacenda, who won a Peabody Award® for his comedy series American Vandal and directed our Jenny Jones episode, we built what I think is one of the best groups of directors for an episodic documentary series.”

The other important thing for everyone involved was to avoid sensationalizing selected stories. McGinn says, “It was crucial for us that if we were going to make a series examining the collision between journalism and the entertainment world, then we needed to think seriously about the choices that we were making and ask ourselves if we were making them for the right reasons. We're telling stories that, no matter what your point of view, you can come away having your mind changed about the case, or at the very least, understanding the other side.” Brill agrees, adding that, “Something that I was struck by, even though the series was directed by six different people, is that the approaches were the same. Let's present the background, the two sides, and the strongest arguments for each side and leave the viewer to make up their mind.”

About the Episodes

EPISODE 1: TALK SHOW MURDER - Directed by Tony Yacenda

In the 1990s, with daytime talk shows aggressively competing for viewership and embracing increasingly outrageous tactics, The Jenny Jones Show became the center of conversation after the murder of Scott Amedure. Gunned down by a friend he brought onto a ‘Secret Crush’ segment of the show, the ensuing made-for-TV trials (broadcast on Court TV) captivated audiences around the country, further blurring the lines between real life and fantasy, and putting the media itself (and trash TV) on trial while the whole world watched.

“For the Jenny Jones episode, we really wanted to bring in a director with a totally different filmmaking pedigree,” recalls executive producer Brian McGInn. “We wanted someone who not only could capture the tragic absurdity of this case, but who would also want to explore the big ethical and moral questions the story raised. I really loved the Netflix series American Vandal and thought it played with a number of true crime tropes in a creative and insightful way. I’d become friends with Tony Yacenda, who created and directed that series and we asked him to direct this episode. Tony brought his non-traditional point of view to making a documentary, and that was really exciting for us.”

EPISODE 2: SUBWAY VIGILANTE - Directed by Skye Borgman

With New York City subways becoming increasingly dangerous and the public increasingly afraid, in 1984, Bernhard Goetz, a nerdy middle-aged white man, shot four black teenagers on a crowded train car, claiming he felt threatened. Dubbed the ‘Subway Vigilante’ by an eager tabloid press corps, Goetz found himself in the middle of a media circus. The ensuing courtroom fight sparked a national debate, with special interest groups ranging from civil rights leaders (seeing Goetz as a racist) to the National Rifle Association (who portrayed Goetz as a hero of the self-defense laws) turning the tragedy into a platform for espousing their views.

Award-winning director and cinematographer Skye Borgman previously directed Abducted in Plain Sight, one of the most talked-about documentaries on Netflix over the last few years. “Skye has an incredible ability to tell stories that seem, on their surface, ripe for sensationalism,” says McGinn. “But she digs deeper and uncovers universal truths in an enlightening, non-judgmental way. For the Goetz story, which became politicized on all sides, we knew she’d slowly peel back the layers of the onion to reveal what really happened.”

EPISODE 3: 41 SHOTS - Directed by Garrett Bradley

When Amadou Diallo, an African man, was killed after being fired at 41 times by New York City police officers, many were shocked. But when more information started coming out — that he was unarmed, a teenager, and was standing in the vestibule of his apartment building, controversy erupted. On a quest for answers and justice, Diallo's mother was forced to confront the complicated politics of race in America in the face of massive protests, a nationally broadcast criminal trial, and her own grief for her son’s tragic death. This story examines issues of police brutality and racial profiling that continue to dominate headlines today. Long before Ferguson, Eric Garner and Black Lives Matter, there was Amadou Diallo.

“As you examine how news gets disseminated, the conversation tends to be about what the media includes when they craft a story,” explains executive producer Brian McGinn. “But what the media leaves out of their stories is just as important. We wanted to examine that idea in this episode. Director Garrett Bradley recently won the best director prize at Sundance and it was exciting for us to see her take on this well known, yet often forgotten case.” Jeffrey Toobin adds, “I was struck by how the feel was very different in each episode. There are different ways you can look at the Diallo trial, and obviously, race is at the center of it, but the way that Garrett handled it really elevated the Black Lives Matter story in a universal and really profound way. I found it very moving.”

EPISODE 4: KING RICHARD - Directed by Brian McGinn

In 2003, in the wake of the Enron Scandal, Richard Scrushy, one of America’s most prominent CEOs, was indicted on charges of fraud. The government claimed Scrushy made hundreds of millions of dollars to fund his dreams of grandeur — including multiple private jets, dozens of vintage cars and houses, and a vanity second career as the lead singer in a country band. But while Scrushy’s alleged crimes were purely white-collar, what happened once he was put on trial was anything but traditional. Fought as much outside the courtroom as inside, Scrushy’s case found both the government and his flamboyant small-town Birmingham, AL lawyers orchestrating media campaigns to define who Richard Scrushy really was. But it was Scrushy’s own local-TV evangelical talk show and expansive outreach to Birmingham’s African American community that drew the attention of the national media, and turned up the heat on one of the strangest ‘so crazy it’s true’ legal stories of the 2000s.

When reflecting on the cases in the series, executive producer Steven Brill says that he doesn’t think that there has been any shift in the behavior of lawyers since cameras have been allowed in courtrooms. “Lawyers have always played for the cameras even when they're standing outside the courthouse,” he says. “And if the cameras weren’t inside the courtroom, the lawyers would still come out on the courthouse steps and talk about how wonderful they were, which is what they did in the Scrushy case. Most notably, the defense lawyers would come out and exalt over what geniuses they were.” The director of King Richard, Brian McGinn says that he was excited about telling this particular story for that reason. “More than our other episodes, this story is a study of how lawyers try to convince us of what’s true and what’s not,” he says. “We live in a modern world where the idea of subjective truth, of creating your own narrative, no matter what side you’re on, is crucial to success. To explore how objective truth becomes blurred, or even lost, in that environment was what I wanted to do with this story.”

EPISODE 5: BIG DAN’S - Directed by Sierra Pettengill

After a brutal barroom rape made headlines, the national media descended on the small New England town of New Bedford, MA, stirring up local tensions in a town unprepared to be in the spotlight. When the trial began, for the first time, live coverage of the courtroom proceedings was televised gavel to gavel across the country. What happened next set off a firestorm of controversy about this tragic case and the victim at the center of it that has eerie parallels to the modern #MeToo era.

Some may recognize aspects of this case from the movie The Accused, the film that won Jodie Foster a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of a woman gang-raped in a bar in Massachusetts which was loosely based on the Big Dan’s case. Director Sierra Pettengill, who won an Emmy and was nominated for an Academy Award for producing the 2013 documentary Cutie and the Boxer, came on board to direct the episode. McGinn explains the significance of the case, “We have to remember that this was more than 10 years before the O.J. Simpson trial. A young woman claimed that she was sexually assaulted in a bar and that she had been raped by a number of men. It turned into a national news story that was covered by all the major media outlets and there was so much interest that they broadcast the trial from beginning to end on television live. However, no one had really thought about what the impact was going to be of all this media attention on a victim in a case like this. We examine the fall-out in this hour. As a society, I think we should constantly ask how we can learn from these situations and make things a little better for the next time around. Director Sierra Pettengill had co-directed an amazing archival movie called The Reagan Show and we were excited to have her helm this episode.”

EPISODE 6: BLAGO! - Directed by Yance Ford

Rod Blagojevich was a media darling, a charismatic politician who built his meteoric rise on the backs of positive press attention and the support of Chicago’s Democratic political machine. So how did he end up in handcuffs, with the media turned against him? This is the story of Governor Rod Blagojevich's decade-long fall from grace, his unprecedented media blitz to defend himself in the court of public opinion, and his sensational trial and verdict — a modern-day reality show unlike any other, culminating in the headline-grabbing twist of President Trump’s 2020 commutation of Blagojevich’s sentence.

Trial by Media explores the effect that the media can have on all different types of cases. McGinn explains what excited the creative team about including this high profile political corruption trial. “In this episode, we delve into the case of the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who had really risen to power on the back of a sterling relationship with the media that called him the next great hope of the Democratic Party,” he says. “Then he was indicted for attempting to sell the US senate seat that Barack Obama vacated in 2008, when he won the Presidency. It turned into this crazy media circus. A lot of the way that he defended himself was not in the courtroom, it was by going on talk shows to proclaim his innocence. The Oscar-nominated Yance Ford was so excited to tackle this episode, and that was obviously thrilling for us.”

Trial by Media is a Supper Club production, in association with Smokehouse Pictures, and is directed by Skye Borgman (Abducted in Plain Sight), Garrett Bradley (Time), Academy Award® nominee Yance Ford (Strong Island), Emmy® nominee Brian McGinn (Amanda Knox), Sierra Pettengill (The Reagan Show), and Tony Yacenda (American Vandal). Executive producers are author and lawyer Jeffrey Toobin (The People vs. O.J. Simpson); journalist, author and Court TV founder Steven Brill; Smokehouse Pictures’ George Clooney and Grant Heslov; and Supper Club’s Brian McGinn, Jason Sterman and David Gelb.

Images & info - Netflix

Trial By Media is available on Netflix NOW.

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