They used to say yesterday’s news was today’s fish wrap. These days, it’s today’s video product. Repackaged from stale ABC newscasts, MPI Home Video’s On Trial: The William Kennedy Smith Case is an 80-minute ”chronicle” of the rape case. For its nightly news during the trial, ABC relied so heavily on the same top 10 sound bites that now, in this tape, the archivists are reduced to playing those familiar snippets two, three, even four times. On Trial is a rerun within a rerun.
”The ABC News team reported on every facet of the case,” MPI’s press release enthuses. But the only revelation to be gleaned from this rehash is how few facets ABC bothered to explore — and how few of these facets pertained to the woman’s side of the story.
From day one, ABC News focused on the Kennedy perspective. ”The report set off alarms for family members,” a concerned male voice tell us. What alarms it set off for women (if you can’t be safe in the security-larded Camelot compound, where can you be?) is evidently of little import. Good news, another male announcer says: Ted and son Patrick are ”in the clear.”
The video offers a sampler of three-hankie photo ops: Willie in Sunday best descending church steps; Willie accepting his med-school diploma (in the Kennedy Center ballroom); and Willie delivering his posttrial press conference/high school valedictory to wild applause (”I want to say thanks to all my friends….I’m just really happy. So, I’ll see you guys later.” Yeah, later, dude).
The video is, in one respect, unintentionally educational. It shows the power imbalance between the sexes at every level of media coverage: the daily lineup of male anchors (one of the exceptions being Diane Sawyer’s interview with Patricia Bowman) and the daily efforts by the media to bolster Smith’s side of the story and to deep-six the accuser’s. Peripheral characters who favor Smith are ushered before the mikes with alacrity; a onetime landlord asserts, ”We have found him a very pleasant, considerate, hardworking, diligent individual.” Well, that clinches it. On the other hand, the three women who came forward with additional allegations of sexual assault against Smith are quickly drowned out by a chorus of indignant male media guardians. ”There’s a gag order in effect,” the usually inquisitive Ted Koppel harrumphs, ”but you wouldn’t know it by today’s news. It may be a matter of the prosecution using the media to find Smith guilty before the trial even begins.” The newsmen, however, seem to have no problem with the defense using the media to disseminate pro-Willie propaganda.
MPI’s PR director, Laura Levitt, says ABC figured the Smith case was a natural for video release since ”anything Kennedy-related is American history.” But On Trial‘s main service is to advertising, not history. The final words of the video: ”More Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source.” You’ve got to marvel at the nerve of ABC and MPI: Not only did they produce an hour-long promo for the network; now they expect us to pay for it. D