Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today to support the journalism you rely on!

Lack Of Video Kills Media Buzz At Whitey Bulger Trial


The trial for one of this country's most notorious mobsters is underway. But you haven't seen any of it. That's because no cameras are allowed in the federal courtroom in Boston where you'll find defendant James Whitey Bulger. This week, Bulger sat just feet away from his former partner who said the mob boss was the one who pulled the trigger on friends suspected of being rats, but without cameras, the drama has been harder to convey, as NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's got all the elements of must-see TV - the violent mob boss and fellow gangsters with names like the Rifleman and the Exterminator and an intriguing twisted plot of double-crossing and double double-crossing. It's got gore, grieving families and, of course, the greedy and corrupt FBI agents who give the story real public policy implications and yet, this is a trial you can't see on TV.

SETH ROSEN: I'm disappointed. I mean, you know, a real life kind of mob trial unfolding. I'd watch a lot of it.

SMITH: Would-be viewer Seth Rosen(ph) isn't the only one frustrated.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Well, Kim(ph), here at federal court, we can't show you video...

SMITH: Just ask all the reporters and camera crews who swarm the court every morning.

SHELLEY MURPHY: Yeah. I mean, everybody wants video. We want video, too.

SMITH: Even print reporters like Shelley Murphy of the Boston Globe.

MURPHY: I really wish they had cameras in there. It's incredible. He's finally going to have his day in court.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: James is set up with the sketches. Yeah.

SMITH: Instead, the public view of the trial will come from pastel court drawings and scraps of comments from attorneys.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mr. Bulger stood up and said good morning to the jury.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Unintelligible).

SMITH: With so little to broadcast, reporters are resorting to the next best thing. Kelley Tuthill is a reporter for WCVB.

KELLEY TUTHILL: They call it an epic trial. It's an epic Twitter trial.

MURPHY: Yeah. But it's all we had to put that context in a tweet. You know what I'm saying?


SMITH: @ShelleyMurph, one of many trying to paint the picture in 140 character strokes. Whitey, sporting hunter green long sleeved jersey and jeans. Prosecutor shifted his chair so he's facing judge and not Bulger. Bulger cracks a smile.

JONATHAN HALL: It would be a lot more compelling to cover it in a different way. We can't do it and that is a shame.

SMITH: WHDH reporter Jonathan Hall says even the most creative writing can't really convey the nuance or drama in court. Take the heated argument just the other day that left WBZ reporter Jim Armstrong kicking himself that no tape was rolling.

JIM ARMSTRONG: The lawyers were shouting at each other. The judge was shouting back. I mean, that would have been, frankly, great television that I'll have to explain happened rather than show happened.

SMITH: For his broadcast that night, Armstrong offered a lively read-back of his notes.


SMITH: So far, no one's talking about hiring actors to recreate the drama like in the Michael Jackson criminal trial, but you can understand the temptation. The lack of video not only makes it harder to communicate the news story, but says reporter Jonathan Hall, it also makes it harder for the story to make the news.

HALL: I mean, as this wears on, there will be days, quite frankly, if we had the video, it would get more coverage than - oh, another sketch. I think we'll pass today. I can see that happening.

SMITH: It all raises that age-old question, if a blockbuster trial happens in court and no cameras are around to broadcast it, can it really be a blockbuster trial? Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson says not really.

CHARLES NESSON: It makes it literally invisible, not a public trial.

SMITH: Federal courts have allowed limited experiments with cameras in civil trials, but not criminal ones. They worry it would hurt the dynamics in court and encourage mugging for the camera.

NANCY GERTNER: That has become preposterous.

SMITH: Former federal judge Nancy Gertner, a longtime advocate for cameras in courts, thinks it's now just a matter of time.

GERTNER: State courts, where there is, you know, blood and gore, rape and murder, have had cameras for 40 years and the republic still stands.


SMITH: As Bulger gets whisked in and out of court every day, there are some in town that are happy his trial isn't broadcast.

EILEEN NORTON: No. Because I'm sure that's what he would like. He'd play to the camera. He'd love that.

SMITH: Eileen Norton(ph) is a teacher from Malden.

NORTON: See, he's got an ego. He's like a rock star and I don't think we should hold him up like a Bruin or a Celtic.

SMITH: There's at least one other who's also happy not to have TV cameras rolling. That's the courtroom sketch artist who's in for a very lucrative summer. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.



This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.