Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Americans, riven over the federal indictments of former President Donald Trump, may actually agree on one thing: The proceedings should be televised.
That seemed apparent after 38 Democratic representatives signed a letter to the Judicial Conference, the board led by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, that would determine if the trials allow cameras, saying, in part: "Given the historic nature of the charges brought forth in these cases, it is hard to imagine a more powerful circumstance for televised proceedings. If the public is to fully accept the outcome, it will be vitally important for it to witness, as directly as possible, how the trials are conducted, the strength of the evidence adduced and the credibility of witnesses."
Trump's attorney, John Lauro, appears to agree. He told Fox News last month, "I would hope that the Department of Justice would join in that effort so that we can take the curtain away and all Americans can see what's happening."
Televising the trials could have several benefits, including increasing confidence that the eventual verdicts are justified by a fair judicial process. That's essential to stabilize trust in the justice system, which has come under unfair, withering attacks from Trump and his congressional and media enablers.
And it's essential for stabilizing trust in the political system, especially since the 2024 election looks to be a relitigation of the 2020 race — and a referendum of Trump's role in inspiring the MAGA mob that ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
The trials should "absolutely" be televised, Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota professor of media ethics and law, told an editorial writer. In particular, she said, the Jan. 6 trial is "unprecedented."
The last time such a high-stakes legal and political event occurred — the Bush-Gore 2000 election mess that ended up in the Supreme Court — audio of the arguments was allowed. Considering this case's consequences and society's present expectations and experience, video should be, too.
"The reality is that the public now expects audiovisual coverage of events that are of great significance," Kirtley said. "The best way to counter any spin from any side is to allow people to see what's actually transpiring and let them draw their own conclusions, and the only way you can do that is with cameras in the courtroom."
Spin will still be omnipresent. But it shouldn't be the only kind of video available, especially because the plaintiff and defendant have already taken such different approaches to addressing the public.
Special Counsel Jack Smith has appropriately spoken little beyond addressing the indictments as they were made public.
Trump, conversely — never seeming to appreciate how an adult committed to serving this nation should behave — has called Smith "deranged" and a "thug," among other insults, and recently wrote "IF YOU GO AFTER ME, I'M COMING AFTER YOU!" on his Truth Social network, a threat that's become central to the special counsel requesting a protective order regarding the disclosure of discovery materials central to the case.
Such an imbalanced presentation would be on steroids during a federal trial, with the court proceeding's facts overwhelmed by characterization (or just as likely, mischaracterization) of camera-seeking sycophants of Trump — or even the former president himself — outside of the courtroom.
Our democracy deserves better. It deserves — even necessitates — transparency.
"Are we going to try this in a courtroom?" Kirtley rhetorically asked. "Are we going to try it on social media and on TV, at Trump rallies and things like that? And if the answer is, 'Well, a little bit of both,' then at the very least we need to say then that the official proceedings going on in the courtroom have to be open to the greatest extent possible, which effectively means you've got to have electronic media there."
Indeed, the Judicial Conference should listen to Trump's attorney and the Democratic representatives. If they make the right call, Americans just might find more common ground at a time when the nation needs it most.