Trial by Media Season 1 Review: Looks at Historical Cases But Doesn’t Challenge The Past

Trial by Media Season 1 Review: Looks at Historical Cases But Doesn’t Challenge The Past
Movie Rated

Format: DocuSeries
Platform: Netflix
Movie Rated: 16+
Genre: Documentary  

What is the Story About?

As a part of the media, it is imperative for us to acknowledge our position as spokespeople for the public and bureaucratic systems in our country and worldwide. It is often treading a dangerous path, as this powerful position comes with certain unspoken guidelines which can throw you over a moralistic edge. The news that we cover, this information we provide, and the way we do it, it comes with responsibility. And while there are plenty of people who debate media responsibility, there is no show to take it up head-on. Netflix’s latest documentary series Trial by Media is based on an important and interesting concept - picking up on popular cases in America’s socio-political history, which were fuelled by their style of coverage and heavily influenced public opinion. Hence, it is immensely watchable. It does not, however, justify its theme beyond a point. 
The six-part series, while extremely entertaining and binge-worthy, is somewhat uneven. There are six episodes and as is the case with any anthology of this nature, not all the episodes lay down the theme in the same way. There is the infamous Jenny Jones Show episode in which a man revealed that he liked his straight friend. A few days later, the gay man was found dead and the straight friend was found guilty. This episode centres on whether the show had a hand in how the reveal was dealt with. In the famous Bernard Goetz case, the eponymous Subway Vigilante shot four black teenagers in the New York subway. Even as the case could have been a chapter in racism, Goetz was eventually acquitted. The people also seemed to point fingers towards the safety of the subway system and believed he was right to defend himself in that way (if that was the case). In 41 Shots, Amadou Dillo was an African immigrant who was brutally shot by police in New York at the height of racial tensions in the city. These are three of the better episodes of the show. The rest of the episodes also deal with popular cases but aren’t half as emotionally resonant or nuanced in the way they are presented, which makes them come across as frivolous. 


Trial by Media joins the ranks of several true crime dramas and docudramas that fill up the crevices of Netflix. The format of each episode is pretty straight-forward: There is an explanation of the crime that happened and how the media covered it. From the perspective of an intelligent viewer, it is evident that there are ethical concerns surrounding the very nature in which information of the crime has been shared with the people. For instance, in 2008 Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested for trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat (the one he would have been giving up to become President). He was caught by the FBI who quoted him saying that he had struck gold. While the governor was a positively charming figure in the eyes of the public, his tapes were shown everywhere, enough to make him into a media sensation. Another example is Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, who was involved in a sexual relationship with the then President Clinton. After the scandal broke about the affair that also involved Clinton committing perjury by influencing Lewinsky’s testimony against him regarding an inquiry about his financial dealings, it hardly affected the President’s image but visibly ruined Lewinsky’s. Clinton was eventually impeached but Lewinsky was not absolved from being the alleged home breaker. Stylistically, Trial by Media (while not taking these specific cases) does address the media’s influence over major verdicts. And that is why the existence of such a show is important. Each episode does address several underlying issues for the specific case and how the media narrative dominates perception, like racism, homophobia, televising and sensationalising news etc. But at no point does one feel that the viewer is being questioned for their voyeuristic pleasure in such cases and the fact that such TV sells. In irony, Netflix has also created an entertainment show based on the same theme adding to its true crime repertoire, so it would be difficult for the show to take a moral high ground. 


George Clooney serves as executive producer for the show and keeps his loyalty and love for journalism intact. He does not, however, make it to the front of the camera. 

In each trial, there are certain elements that are mildly touched upon like victim anonymity and trial voyeurism. And in some ways, the fact that no common element binds the theme of Trial by Media together with other than the fact that these cases were all covered by the media, makes it easy to pick and choose the episodes on the basis of interest. It is certainly provocative as most true-crime shows are, and the sheer notoriety behind each case makes it a worthy watch, especially if you are unfamiliar with the case itself. 

Trial by Media, however, does not seem to be too concerned with the way modern technology has changed the way in which we are exposed to the news. All these cases are quite old and that makes them less relevant in a modern context. Also, if seen in the sequence as released, the way each case is presented seems a bit repetitive in the way that interviews across cases would seem to be having similar criticism for how it was handled by the law and the media. 


Music and Other Departments
The interviews with the central characters involved with the legislation, judiciary and the committing of the crime are immensely valuable repositories and are utilised in the screenplay as archival footage well.
Did I Enjoy It?
A few episodes because I was less familiar with the cases itself. 

Do I Recommend It?
If you like true-crime shows then you will definitely watch it in one sitting, but by the time the last episode rolls around, you will be left perhaps a bit underwhelmed. 


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