I try my very best not to ever think about O.J. Simpson, but the former NFL star and murder suspect’s recent death brought to mind the all-consuming fervor surrounding his televised 1995 trial. The public weren’t the ones deciding whether he’d killed his ex-wife and her friend. Yet having the buffoonery of ill-fitting gloves, racist detectives and whatever was going on with Judge Lance Ito beamed into millions of American homes certainly affected culture, including how we consume and process cases, particularly celebrity ones.

The current criminal trial of former President Donald Trump in New York is not televised because the state doesn’t usually allow cameras in the courtroom. But that hasn’t precluded the circus, which has included arguably accurate sketches, media dispatches from inside, and the defendant as ringleader, holding court outside and spinning the proceedings there and on social media.

People are going to believe what they want to believe, but in the spirit of Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and The City,” I couldn’t help but wonder if opinion would be swayed if the public was witnessing, say, Stormy Daniels and Hope Hicks’ testimonies and facial expressions in real time. I asked the opinion of two media experts with local ties, and the verdict is: Not really.

“I don’t think it would change that much,” said Melvin Edwards, a former Houston Post reporter turned author, podcaster and teacher, who lived in Maryland for 18 years before returning to his native Texas in 2021. “People go into it with their minds already made up. The people who want him to be found guilty will still want him to be found guilty, and the people who want him to be found innocent don’t care what happens. I think that if it were televised, they [Trump supporters] just wouldn’t care. If it were on every single channel they just would not turn on the TV that day.”

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Milton Kent, a former Baltimore Sun writer and current professor of practice and multimedia journalism at Morgan State University, told me that “it’s a blessing and a curse that it’s not on. The blessing is that I think the American public in general is mostly ignorant about the legal profession and courtrooms, and they’re used to old shows like ‘Perry Mason’ where the real murderer comes to court and actually confesses.”

The curse? “We have increasingly become a society where if you don’t see it, it didn’t happen,” he said. “We’re not getting exactly what happened in the courtroom. If you trust journalists — and I do — you’re still not getting precisely what happened in the courtroom. You’re getting someone else’s retelling, and then Trump’s stamp on it. The journalists at least give it an air of legitimacy.”

It’s well-documented that television can sway voters and opinions. In a public speaking class at the University of Maryland, College Park, more than 30 years ago, my professor showed us a very sweaty and sick Richard Nixon debate handsome, confident John F. Kennedy in 1960 and said, “Here’s where Nixon lost.” What the candidates were saying was no longer as important as how they looked. And Kennedy just looked better.

Just recently, we’ve seen Democratic Senate hopeful David Trone pour millions of dollars into TV ads in his campaign against Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (who, in the spirit of full disclosure, is my second cousin). Trone ultimately lost, but he paid for those ads for a reason. Visuals, even in 30-second snippets, can be powerful. Video that creates coolness, authority and image is “why we got Reagan instead of Carter, why we got Clinton instead of the first President Bush,” Kent said.

Even though we’ve lost the monoculture present during the Simpson trial, I asked our experts if the impact of a televised trial involving a former president could still break through in the same way. Edwards, who recalled watching the Watergate hearings in class, said he “just can’t think a large enough segment of society would watch at the same time, even if they could.”

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He said that lack of live coverage fits into the way most people consume their news anyway, which is from social media. ”You get a TikTok-like video that shows you 10 seconds of something from a skewed perspective,” Edwards said. “Look at Johnnie Cochran and the O.J. moment with the glove. One side would have shown him wearing the glove, and some would not show him and just talk about the glove. You’d have no way of knowing what happened. And it’s so segmented now that I’m not sure you could get a close-enough picture to put together reasonable judgment on social media.”

He offered as parallel the way that Americans watched protesters scaling the U.S. Capitol building live on television on Jan. 6, 2021. “It went from ‘This is the worst thing that ever happened’ to ‘These are tourists’ to ‘Nothing happened that day.’ The story has been spun so much that even though we saw it with our own eyes, they’re telling us nothing happened. Because what he [Trump] tells them is the truth and if he said it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen. It’s bizarre.”

The lack of cameras means we’re not seeing things that reporters have noted, like Trump nodding off in court or staring daggers at prosecutors. Without that visual confirmation, “there’s a group of people who can wave it all away,” Kent said. “They can say, ‘That’s just the mainstream media. They have it in for him.’”

We are in uncharted “alternative facts” territory. Even if the trial was aired, this current image of Trump contrasts with earlier images we were fed of him — those that created his legend as a hotshot business mogul with a preternatural ability to know people.

“‘The Apprentice’ was the image that sold most people on who Donald Trump was,” Kent said. “We can talk about the doddering old man who talks about fictional characters like they’re real and slurs his words, but the public has been introduced to him on his own show where he tells people, ‘You’re fired.’ Many people still have that image.”

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Still, the optimist and media professional in me believes that there are people who want to see the truth, and who would act accordingly without spin. Our survival as a nation and as a democracy depends on being willing to accept evidence and reality, and to cobble together even a fragile but unimpeachable truth we all agree on.

I don’t see it working any other way.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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