Yesterday, April 4, 2023, for the first time in United States history, a former president was arrested.
While other countries around the world have experienced their top leaders being arrested, for nearly 250 years, the United States had managed to avoid becoming a member of that club.
That all changed when Donald Trump exited a courthouse in Manhattan charged with 34 felony counts.
Although no current or former U.S. president had ever been arrested before yesterday, there is a general consensus among many historians that Richard Nixon would have faced charges after he resigned in 1974 had he not been pardoned by Gerald Ford.
Additionally, Bill Clinton’s law license was suspended for five years in Arkansas after he reached a deal with prosecutors in 2001, at the end of his second term, over allegations that he lied under oath about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
A less known presidential “what if?” involves whether President Warren Harding would have been implicated in various crimes as part of the “Teapot Dome Scandal” had he not died in office, in 1923.
In the days, weeks, months and years to come, there will be countless opportunities to delve into whether the arrest of the 45th President of the United States was valid.
It is also possible that there will be other arrests of the same individual over the coming months that will also be debated.
Right now, presidential historians and journalists are likely securing publishing deals for the myriad books that will be written on this chapter of American history.
This is not a column about the arrest, nor is it an exploration of whether the charges are valid.
Instead, this is a column about how a hyper divided country like the United States can navigate its way through something that was likely never considered by the Founding Fathers.
A high visibility case involving a high visibility individual is certainly nothing new.
Since the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 put cameras in the courtroom, Americans have been fascinated with watching celebrity court cases.
Last year, viewers clamored around coverage of the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial.
So far in 2023, viewers were treated to the Alex Murdaugh and Gwyneth Paltrow cases.
These are just a few of the many court cases that have drawn the attention of viewers through the years.
Any potential trial in New York would likely not begin until next year. As such, there is a lot of time for other things to happen between now and then. It is also not clear whether a trial would be televised, since the judge would ultimately have a say on the issue of cameras in their courtroom.
If a case involving a former president goes to trial, and is televised, viewership would likely rival any of the previous cases.
Watching the helicopter coverage of the former president’s motorcade leading to the New York courtroom yesterday definitely gave me some white Bronco related déjà vu.
This brings us to the role the media should play in how they cover any lead up to a trial, as well as how a trial itself is covered, as well as post-verdict aftermath.
O.J. Simpson had many fans who believed that the Juice was innocent. Those fans were elated when the glove didn’t fit and the jury had to acquit.
However, if O.J. had been found guilty, it is highly unlikely that his supporters would have rioted in the streets, or charged the courthouse.
Granted, this was nearly 30 years ago, before social media, and during a time when society was slightly more civil towards people with differing opinions. So, perhaps there would have been riots if the O.J. trial happened in the 21st Century versus the 20th Century.
While we may never know how the O.J. trial would have been different during a time of social media, one can be fairly certain based on events that have happened since January 2020, that if there is a trial involving a former president, it could get messy.
To be clear, I am in no way comparing the crimes that O.J. Simpson was accused of with the crimes that Donald Trump has been accused of. I am merely comparing the way the media and public are drawn to coverage of both trials.
The media therefore faces a delicate balance between feeding the public’s right to know with avoiding any reporting that encourages incitement of violence.
Even if a network felt that providing wall to wall coverage was not the right thing to do, there would likely be great pressure to push ahead to avoid being the only network not covering the event.
In this way, the media herd mentality and desire to not miss out on a scoop works against them.
There are many individuals and groups who blame the news media for the hours of free coverage they gave Donald Trump during the 2016 election. Some have even gone so far as to say that the coverage of nearly every rally and speech given by the former president on the campaign trail played a huge role in the outcome of the 2016 election.
I thought of this as I watched the prime-time coverage of a speech given by the recently arrested former president last night.
There was certainly a news value in airing the speech. It was a historical moment documenting a moment in American history that had never occurred before. It is the news media’s job to cover events like that.
However, as the speech ventured into a slew of attacks on individuals, as well as a greatest hits list of grievances, the news value of the speech dwindled with each passing moment.
As the current court case, and perhaps other cases move towards potential trial, there will be other moments where the media will be tempted to cover a speech in its entirety.
Such is the dilemma of the news media. How does one differentiate between what is truly in the public interest, and what is just a man getting free air time to rant around the Festivus pole with an airing of grievances?
Arguments around media coverage potentially tainting a jury pool is a possible consideration. Although, it is highly likely that all potential jurors already know who the former president is.
Whatever happens from here with the case will continue to plow new ground for legal experts and journalists alike.
We are definitely going to need a bigger boat as we navigate the uncharted waters and choppy seas ahead, as well as a measured approach to steer it through the rapids and eddies.
Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this talk about alleged presidential crimes and journalists has me in the mood to watch “All the President’s Men.”
Copyright 2023 R. Anderson