Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Idol Jury - Part I

In recent years, much has been made of the “CSI effect” on jury decision-making. With the annual rite of January upon us – namely the return of American Idol for a new season – it is time that we look beyond the programs such as CSI if we are to fully discuss the impact of television on American jurors. While the internet might be regarded as the first truly democratic form of medium, American Idol is certainly a close second. It draws viewers each week and, more than drawing passive viewers, motivates them to serve as active participants by voting for their favorite contestant. This, at first, might seem to be the connection between American Idol and juries – each involves voting for (or potentially against) someone, although the consequences for the vote-getters are drastically different than the parties to a court case. However, there are arguably other aspects of American Idol that not only mirror the jury process but also have the potential to influence it.

Since there are many points at which American Idol has relevance to the American jury system, this is the first in a multi-part post. Each post will occur before the next phase of the American Idol contest, in the hopes that it will raise issues that readers will look for during the contest.

The first weeks of the program follow the judges from city to city as they start their quest for contestants. However, the focus of these episodes is often more on those who failed to secure a coveted ticket to Hollywood than those that did. Throughout the years, a series of contestants with dreadful singing ability, horrendous attitudes and sometimes disturbing self-delusions have paraded across the audition stage. Some do it for attention, some for amusement, and others out of a serious hope of success. Each year, it seems that a greater percentage of time is devoted to these contestants than on those who actually can sing. Entertaining, perhaps, but what does this have to do with juries?

First, the subtle message of these episodes is no longer directing the viewer towards the quality of the singer and the competition (analogous to the central acts and issues of a legal case). Instead, the focus is on the peripheral and the unusual. Obviously, the girl who can’t carry a tune should not advance, but neither should the girl who is dressed in an outlandish costume. Thus, the television show recenters the audience’s attention from the core of the competition to the extrinsic attributes of the contestants. While the demeanor and dress of defendants, victims and witnesses has always been an issue at trials, this recentering of the audience’s attention validates the idea of judgment based on facts that are irrelevant to the thing being judged.

Second, it emphasizes the difference between the viewer and the contestants. When watching a horrendous audition on American Idol, one might easily think: “How could you let yourself do that?” or “How could his family support him?” This emphasis on the difference between the viewer and the contestant validates the easily made sense of difference between a juror and a defendant/victim/witness (ie. “I would never have put myself in that situation, why should I believe her?” or “My son would never do such a thing”). Such a difference in place and/or decision-making is natural and yet dangerous to a justice system dependent on juries. In providing a forum that encourages attention-seeking people to “do their own thing” while others watch for entertainment, American Idol reinforces the idea of difference and otherness as something which is amusing at best and to be ridiculed or judged critically at worst.

Third is the role of the judges in the audition process. By now, the identities of the judges and, more importantly, their personalities, are well established to the viewing audience. Simon is harsh and sometimes rude. Paula is nice to the contestants and nurtures them. And Randy is the balance between the two extremes. All of these traits are active personality traits, and the audience would likely be shocked if they were changed. In one sense, this can be seen as reinforcing the place of judges generally. Law judges are themselves known to have their own sense of style and method of running a courtroom. Once that style and standard is set, it becomes an established practice for jurors – as well as lawyers – to rely on. In this sense, the role of the American Idol judges can reinforce the place for judicial behavior seen by jurors and potential jurors. This reinforcement makes it alright to expect something from a judge, and indeed such behavior can be seen as comforting in its dependability. There is a much larger discussion to be had on the subject of disagreeing with the Idol judges and the impact on jurors, however that discussion will be reserved for later posts throughout the season.

The beginning of another season of American Idol offers us a chance for entertainment and for a discussion of the unheralded potential impacts of program on areas of law and civic participation in law. We hope that readers of this blog find the latter as much of interest as the former.

Information regarding American Idol is available at: .

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