A Netflix series puts the media on trial. But real life is more dramatic

Unfortunately for a series that aims to turn the lens on lensmen, it seems to forgot its mandate midway.
In Todd Phillips’ Oscar-winning film Joker, the protagonist played by the inimitable Joaquin Phoenix shoots three men in a subway and then disappears, plunging New York City in chaos as news of a shooter on the loose gets out. These scenes, the foundations of the myth of the Joker, were inspired by an event from the mid-1980s, when an engineer called Bernhard Goetz shot four black teenagers on a New York City subway train and disappeared. No one knew the shooter’s identity, and so the press dubbed him the “Subway Vigilante”, as New Yorkers frustrated by the city’s high crime rate rallied in support of this shooter.

This “vigilante” went on to spark debates around gun control and racism, and is also on the list of names that come up in musician Billy Joel’s song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. The world finally gets to see this infamous shooter in a six-part documentary series by Netflix. Titled Trial by Media, the show relies heavily on actual footage from high-profile cases in America, mostly from the ’80s and ’90s, which the media chased with abandon.

Goetz’s is the second case in the series that released this week. The first follows the shocking aftermath of a talk show, The Jenny Jones Show, where one segment lured guests to the show by saying someone had a “secret crush” on them: the secret admirer would only reveal themselves on the show. The guest on the show, Jonathan Schmitz, would later go on to say he had been “embarrassed on national television” (though the show was never aired), when a male acquaintance, Scott Amedure, professed his affections for him on camera. Four days after the recording, Schmitz shot Amedure.

The episode titled Big Dan’s is the event that inspired The Accused, a film about the gangrape of a woman in a bar that won Jodie Foster her first Oscar. There had never been a nationally televised rape trial in America before the case at Big Dan’s. Another of the documentary’s cases deals with the death of Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea who was shot 41 times by four white police officers while he stood unarmed at his own doorstep. There’s also the documentation of the corruption trial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a man who appeared in American president Donald Trump’s show, The Celebrity Apprentice. Blagojevich got out of jail earlier this year after Trump commuted his sentence.

Produced by actor George Clooney, lawyer and author Jeffrey Toobin (he wrote an account of the O J Simpson murder case, one of the best examples of trial by media), and others, this documentary highlights how in some cases gavel-to-gavel coverage wasn’t just a throwaway term. Every piece of evidence and argument was recorded for the collective consumption of a nation. But barring a few instances, there’s no inference to be drawn from these scenes.

The docuseries might have been more effective if it had just told it as it happened — important cases with remarkable drama in and outside the courtroom. But unfortunately for a series that aims to turn the lens on lensmen, it seems to forget its mandate mid-way. Instances of how the media could manipulate a fickle narrative are few and far between. Instead, the series’ makers seem to simply want to flex how much archival footage they managed to get.

Fiction has to be compelling. It needs you to believe in the twists and turns, expected and otherwise. There are no such demands from the rapes, murders, frauds and scams that take place in real life, and that is one of the few reasons to watch this series. The only other reason would be to better understand the workings of the American justice system.

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