Daily Herald columnist Jim Slusher: When celebrity squabbles make the front page

  • Jim Slusher

    Jim Slusher

 
 
Updated 6/2/2022 9:09 AM

If you're lucky to live long enough, you will come to a time when much of the rest of the population finds you quaintly amusing for being so out of touch with what really matters in our culture. I passed that point some time ago, but still strive to keep up with the events and personalities that a newspaper must follow in order to stay relevant to all generations. Even so, I must confess to profound disinterest in the marital circumstances of Johnny Depp and Amanda Heard.

The Depp-Heard courtroom drama played itself out on television screens and live streams for six weeks. I haven't seen a single second of it, though I did read a news story a couple of weeks ago so I would at least know what the fuss I kept seeing on social media was about. Now, the jury has spoken. Both parties share some blame, it said, but Depp got hurt the most and he'll end up netting millions of dollars in damages.

 

Is this really front-page news? It is in today's Daily Herald, and I suspect will be in many newspapers across the country. The question got a fair amount of discussion in our Wednesday news meeting. After all, there is hardly a suburban connection, nor is there a compelling public interest beyond celebrity voyeurism that would justify giving the story a lot of our limited space for national and international news. But we also know that celebrity voyeurism sometimes rises to high levels of interest and for many people, this verdict was a dominant, if not the dominant news event of the day.

Sometimes making news judgments requires eschewing value judgments on what people care about. This is one of those times. Of course, people who deeply care about the Depp-Heard lawsuits will have ample opportunities to read, tweet, view and share information about the case, but for readers who are happy to stay in touch with the culture, we provided a prominent opportunity to get a basic accounting of the issues, the nature of the trial and the meaning of the results.

But I have found another, more broadly applicable issue about the trial worth serious reflection -- the matter of courtroom cameras. Open access to courtroom proceedings for video and audio reporting is important to help people better understand the justice system, but the practice is still limited to non-existent in most states. I worry about the impact of a case like this, which involves complex legal issues and precedents and pits opposing interests against each other for an audience far beyond the four walls of the courtroom. It gets a lot of attention, but more for entertainment value than civic enrichment.

True, viewers of this trial got valuable insights into the workings of the civil court process -- and the presumed central issue of domestic abuse definitely deserves attention. But, in this trial, many people were much more interested in choosing whether to side with Heard or Depp than with understanding the issues jurors had to take into account.

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It's good people got to see the process. It's disappointing that it's a salacious case like this -- one involving people and activities worlds outside the experience of most of us -- that puts it on display. My lingering hope, I guess, is that we don't base our decisions whether to let the public see and hear what actually happens in a courtroom on sensational trials like this.

Life-and-death matters take place every day in courtrooms across America. Occasionally, there are cases that just involve a popularity contest between super wealthy individuals who will lose or gain some millions of dollars they won't even miss.

Either way, direct access to them is valuable, even for those of us who aren't in complete sync with the times,

jslusher@dailyherald.com

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