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The Judicial Conference of the United States, the federal judiciary’s policy-making branch, approved a pilot project last week to bring cameras into some civil proceedings. Parties can veto cameras, and the video will never show jurors’ faces. The cameras will be operated by court personnel, not news organizations.

According to a spokesman from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, six district courts attempted similar recordings in the early 1990s, “but the program was never made permanent because of concerns about the impact on jurors and witnesses.” Of course, video is much more viral today than in the ’90s, in no small part due to the internet and YouTube. How the increased demand for transparency and access will balance with concerns about jurors and witnesses has yet to play out.

The JCUS decision doesn’t apply to the Supreme Court, which voted 5-4 earlier this year to ban video of Judge Vaughn Walker’s California Proposition 8 trial due to fears supporters of Prop. 8 would be harassed for testifying.

(Coincidentally, reenactments of the Prop. 8 trial were very popular on YouTube.)

Only a few justices have openly discussed their feelings about cameras in the Supreme Court. Justice Stephen Breyer, recently touring to promote a new book, told NBC’s Brian Williams expressed worry witnesses and such could fear being watched by their whole community but did acknowledge the possible benefits.

The answer to me is not obvious. We haven’t voted on it. I haven’t had to take a position. The reasons for doing it are obvious. I mean, television is part of the press. And I think wouldn’t it have been a wonderful thing if television could’ve been in the courtroom and seen the oral argument, for example, in the case of term limits, and many of these cases. You would’ve seen nine people struggling towards an answer in a very, very difficult kind of question.

The court’s newest justice, Elena Kagan, is on record as being fairly pro-camera.

If cameras were in the courtroom, the American public would see an amazing and extraordinary event. This court I think is so smart and so prepared and so engaged. And everybody who gets up there at the podium is – the toughest questions, the most challenging questions are thrown at that person. … I think if you put the cameras in the courtroom, people would see, ‘Wow,’ they would see an institution of their government I think working at a really high level. So that’s one plus factor for doing it.

But would cameras in the Supreme Court really help demystify its proceedings and power? In 2008 Linda Greenhouse, who covered the court for 30 years at the New York Times, said that while she is in favor of expanded video access, cameras in the courtroom may not make understanding the court any easier.

For one thing, the hourlong oral argument represents only a small part of the decisional process — the tip of the iceberg, you might say. For another, the arguments are not all that easily comprehensible to a casual viewer. I don’t mean that to sound condescending. But it’s important to realize that the arguments don’t proceed in a linear fashion. There is almost never a point at which the lawyer describes the case. It’s just assumed that the justices know the facts of the case and know the relevant law. The real question in the argument — whether stated or not — is: if we rule your way in your case, what are we buying into? What’s the implication for the next case or cases? The questions can range so far afield that not infrequently, even when I have thought I was fully prepared to listen to the argument (and for that reason, my practice was never to even bother going to an argument if I hadn’t read the briefs) I would be left scratching my head and wondering if somehow I was at the argument for the wrong case.

And following the Supreme Court’s minutiae was her job! Last week Arlen Specter introduced a bill requiring the court to allow cameras into its open sessions (although the legislature really has no way to enforce that, aside from cutting the courts’ budget, a dicey political move) unless the majority vote that doing so would violate due process for one or more of the parties.

The court already allows press and public access, and releases transcripts and audio recordings of its public proceedings — admittedly, months or even years later. Furthermore, the justices seem to be worried about creating pressure to produce sound bites for television news, something that anyone who has read through a handful of court transcripts can see does not happen now.

It seems the Supreme Court, at least for now, will continue on camera-less. In a few years, however, once this pilot program in the lower federal courts plays out and access to video becomes more and more available to the public, the court may have to reconsider its stance. Unfortunately, video of oral arguments would provide about as much transparency into the judiciary as C-SPAN does into the legislature or press conferences do into the executive.

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If you haven’t yet seen Antoine Dodson, you absolutely have to. He became an internet sensation a few weeks back when he spoke to a TV news crew about an attempted rape on his sister. His comments, already poignant, were then remixed into a surprisingly catchy tune.

Here’s the original news report:

And the popular song:

I was amused, but hadn’t given it much more thought. Then I heard an interview with Dodson on NPR’s “Tell Me More.” He says people now stop him on the street and call him the “YouTube guy.” The makers of the remix have agreed to share what profits they make with him.

That’s about where the interview gets interesting. He sounds rather cartoonish in the news clip, but on NPR Dodson was surprisingly well spoken. While reconsidering my original opinion about him, host Allison Keyes began asking questions about the attack, about his difficult life (the 24-year-old is the oldest of six siblings), about getting out of the ’hood. What began as just a silly song transcended its original boundaries and touched on issues of race, poverty, sexual violence, family responsibility and controlling your image in a runaway media.

Dodson is deftly maneuvering the notoriety he received from the videos in an attempt to better his family’s life. “I said, Kelly, this could be an opportunity for our family to get out of the ‘hood,” he said. “I took it and I was running with it… and I’m still running with it.”

Keyes then spoke with “Tell Me More” technology commentator Mario Armstrong and comedian Baratunde Thurston about Dodson. They touched on the YouTube 15 minutes of fame paradox, but quickly moved to the other, more sensitive issues Dodson brought up earlier.

Race and controlling one’s media image:

When you look at you can see white people putting afro wigs on and do-rags and trying to talk like they think Antoine’s talking. It’s just highly uncomfortable. And for a lot of black people who I know, and many of others who I’ve read online, it was just a little too close to home for people who’ve never really had control of their media image, have always been defined by someone who wanted to paint a very specific, narrow picture of what black people are not, Antoine got a bit close to that for them. [Thurston]

A serious issue – an attempted rape – simplified to something funny:

But as Baratunde mentioned, I totally agree with him that the raw content, the raw issue, was being overpassed. I mean, it just wasn’t being seen for what the real issue was. It was transforming into something that he couldn’t even stop. He couldn’t stop the train and I think that’s what got people excited. And so I do think it comes down to people wanting to watch something that they think is funny, not something that they think is a real serious issue. [Armstrong]

Taking an opportunity to make a better life:

I have a lot of feelings about this video. But the more I have followed Antoine on Twitter and Facebook, the more admiration I have for him, because I think, collectively, if you want to make this about race and there’s also an element of sexuality in this. There’s a southern thing going on. There’s a lot of things happening in this story. But if you want to look at the race angle and the quote/unquote “embarrassment factor,” I think what he’s been able to do by grabbing control of his own mean and identity and really riding the wave and helping direct it and extract money from it and getting his family out of the ’hood, is the story that collectively many black people have not been able to do. [Thurston]

And you thought it was just a remix video.

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