In 1990, the venerated New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm published The Journalist and the Murderer, a chronicle of a convicted murderer’s lawsuit against the author he’d trusted to tell his story. Controversial for its era, the book frames journalism as a game of “seduction and betrayal,” in which the reporter inevitably turns on the subject. Over three subsequent decades that saw the rise of first Court TV and hyperpartisan cable news, then digital and social media, however, it became a standard journalism-school text. A corrective to the assumption that reportage is an inherently righteous calling, it now reads as common sense.
Yet Malcolm largely ignored the opposite scenario, in which a journalist, or the media at large, becomes the pawn of a subject—or lawyer—intent on winning in the so-called court of public opinion. Netflix’s Trial by Media—whose executive producers include George Clooney, Court TV founder Steven Brill and Malcolm’s New Yorker colleague Jeffrey Toobin—seems more concerned about the latter form of manipulation. I say “seems” because at no point in the elegantly structured, deeply researched docuseries does the creators’ point of view come into focus.
The six-part anthology revisits a different legal saga in each episode, from racially charged tragedies like 1984’s “subway vigilante” case to the darkly comic 2008 downfall of then Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Skillful interviews draw out such memorable characters as Geoffrey Fieger, the showboating lawyer who helmed a wrongful-death suit against The Jenny Jones Show. An empathetic episode on Amadou Diallo, the unarmed 23-year-old African immigrant who was shot to death by the NYPD in 1999, centers on his mother Kadijatou, whose rude awakening to racism in America launched a lifetime of activism.
What’s missing is synthesis. Each episode tracks how attorneys, activists and other interested parties interact with the media. Sometimes, it’s illuminating; Celebrity Apprentice alum Blagojevich rides a tabloid roller coaster to a presidential commutation catalyzed by his wife’s appearances on Fox News. More often, causes and effects remain fuzzy. The series neither creates a timeline nor makes an overarching argument. We’re left wondering: When journalists are in thrall to murderers, what is to be done?