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No Cameras, No Phones: You Can't Watch Bill Cosby's High-Profile Trial


The murder trial of O.J. Simpson two decades ago was a television sensation. Cameras were rolling from opening statements to the dramatic reading of the jury's not guilty verdict. The sexual assault trial of Bill Cosby starting on Monday may be remembered for the opposite - no photographs, video or even live tweets of the court drama. And as Bobby Allyn of member station WHYY reports, don't expect to follow along on social media.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Court officials have warned the hundreds of reporters set to gather at the Pennsylvania courthouse for the Cosby trial, no cameras will be let in. Reporters have to turn off their phones the whole time. Violating these rules could mean a fine or even jail time for reporters like NBC 10's Deanna Durante.

DEANNA DURANTE: We'll be in their hearing all kinds of facts, hearing the stories of witnesses, watching his reaction, watching the jury's reaction. And we can't do anything with that information until midday.

ALLYN: In Pennsylvania, filming and shooting still photography is always banned in the courtroom. But making reporters disconnect from the internet is something that is stricter than usual. Temple University law professor Kathy Stanchi says the social media ban is within the judge's right.

KATHY STANCHI: You're probably dealing a little bit with the fear of the unknown potential of new technology.

ALLYN: Court officials say witnesses may have privacy concerns. There's a fear that some would try to perform for the live audience. Stanchi says the judge understands how sensational coverage might be, and this is his attempt...

STANCHI: To avoid making the trial into some kind of prurient entertainment circus for the public.

ALLYN: But when court is on break, reporters will be rushing to the hallway to send out a blizzard of tweets and update their stories about what just happened. Gregg Leslie with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press thinks it's wrong that the public will not be getting live Cosby updates. He says reporters are there to bear witness for the millions who can't be there in person. And in 2017. bearing witness often means tweeting.

GREGG LESLIE: At worst, what it does is it guarantees that a less accurate version of events will get out to the public. So what's the benefit in that?

ALLYN: Linda Deutsch understands the value of recording trials. She covered high-profile court cases for The Associated Press for 48 years. She wrote about the O.J. Simpson murder trial where TV cameras rolled from start to finish.

LINDA DEUTSCH: He had his moment when he tried on the famous gloves and said they didn't fit him, and that was a moment for history. And it was televised.

ALLYN: That said, Deutsch thinks good reporting can fill in the gaps left by a lack of footage. She says many Americans assume the 1970 trial of Charles Manson was caught on camera, but it wasn't. She knows because she was there.

DEUTSCH: You've seen still pictures of the defendants for so many years, and you have read such vivid accounts of what was said in that trial and of the horrors of the murders and of Manson and all his pronouncements. None of that was done on camera.

ALLYN: But Leslie, with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says that many Americans are now used to experiencing news in real time on Facebook and Twitter. And shutting those out undercuts an American tradition, that the courthouse doors should always be open to the public.

LESLIE: And so it seems like almost an artificial barrier when we've got this very natural, straightforward way to monitor trials across the country, you know, by electronic coverage.

ALLYN: Network television will not have much to work with, but footage sure to be repeated - Bill Cosby and his legal team entering and leaving the courtroom over and over again.

For NPR News, I'm Bobby Allyn in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.

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