Back in 1925, when a schoolteacher named John T. Scopes violated Tennessee's law against teaching evolution, "every major newspaper in the country sent correspondents to cover the trial," according to a recent account by Terry Teachout. "The proceedings were even broadcast live on radio."
Today, high-profile trials continue to attract reporters en masse. But now they are accompanied by a flotilla of 30 or more satellite trucks that beam images of the courthouse around the world. "We treated this almost like an emergency event, almost like a hurricane in terms of our preparations," says Mark Cox, director of public communications for the city manager in Chesapeake, Virginia, which hosted the recent trial of Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the D.C.-area snipers.
In Chesapeake's case, the city inherited the trial after Malvo won a change of venue, and so had months to get ready. In other situations, local news goes global in a hurry and satellite trucks start appearing, like worms after the rain, within a day of the crime itself. And the cost of commandeering parking lots and providing security, port-a-potties and electronic hookups can be enormous. The one-day arraignment in the Michael Jackson child molestation trial by itself cost California's Santa Barbara County $151,000.
"Nobody can be prepared for these things," says Jack Ingstad, county administrator in Eagle County, Colorado, site of the rape trial of basketball star Kobe Bryant. "I don't think anybody believes that it's going to be as big as it ends up being."
There's no handbook for dealing with the media crush, but as Ingstad points out, many other localities have survived such high-profile events and have tips to share. Ingstad says he learned a lot from colleagues in Boulder, scene of the JonBenet Ramsey hoopla, and Denver, which hosted the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Localities have to coordinate amongst themselves--the courts, the county, the city police and the sheriff--to come up with ways to maintain decorum. In many cases, the judges themselves can help by ordering cameras out of courthouse hallways. Working with the television networks to ensure exterior shots from a fixed position causes a lot less strain than having cameramen chase after lawyers and family members, according to Michael Tozzi, executive officer of the Superior Court in Stanislaus County, California, scene of the early stages of the Scott Peterson murder trial.
Every jurisdiction has to make its own adjustments, based on whether the court must, for instance, provide the public with the same access as the media to modulars with audio feeds of the trial. But some ideas can be adopted anywhere. One that has been widely embraced is setting up a Web site to give all the outlets access to court documents and other information simultaneously. "The press-only Web site reduced phone calls from 700 a day to about five a day," says Tozzi.
In some instances, local governments try to recoup some of their extra costs by charging the media for parking and other considerations. "It's a lot of money, and it's above and beyond the typical costs for a court trial or court proceedings," says Jason Stilwell, project manager in the Santa Barbara County administrator's office.
Despite the need for negotiating logistics, Tozzi and other local officials say that once ground rules are set, the media are generally cooperative. "Anyone who describes it as a circus atmosphere is using the wrong adjective," Tozzi says.
That doesn't mean that having the world's press literally on their doorstep is a great deal for municipal governments. Aside from the added costs and distractions, members of the media provide no noticeable boost to the local economy. There aren't enough of them to fill up the hotels and restaurants of any reasonably sized city. In fact, businesses sometimes complain they take a hit because residents are put off by fears they'll encounter a mob scene outside the courthouse square.
Cities also don't receive much of a public-relations benefit from hosting a celebrated trial, although a place may be forever associated in people's minds with its most notorious crime. While the Peterson trial was in town, Kevin Shand of the Modesto Convention and Visitors Bureau set up a booth in the press tent to try to win more favorable coverage for Modesto. "The media is in town to cover a particular story, and it doesn't care about the rest of the community," he says. "It doesn't matter what you do to showcase the positives of the town, they're not going to get covered."