What does the phrase Trial By Media mean? I had my own perceptions when I saw the trailer for this Netflix series, but then again maybe too much television has led me down that path. I found myself having before, middle, and after perceptions that were more complex and rich after watching this series.
What role does the media play in shaping the narrative within news cycles? That question is too simple for a complex answer. There are so many layers to the who/what/when/where/why that go into a story. Each episode within this series focuses on a different trial, and the interplay between the subject, the legal system and the media. Throughout each episode there are different factors that play key roles in helping understand the stories.
In two different conversations, I was able to speak with the creative voices behind the new Netflix docuseries. First up, Brian McGinn produced and directs the episode about Richard Scrushy, the former CEO of HealthSource Corporation peels back the layers on all the facets to go into the public perception and narrative.
Awards Daily TV: There were so many scandals about CEOs bilking their companies for money and cooking the books. What made Richard Scrushy’s story stand out?
Brian McGinn: I had never heard of this story when we first started talking about it. We wanted to look at a spectrum of cases (in the series). The Scrushy case really fit a specific style of case. This case was pre-Occupy Wall Street, and before the protests against these major CEOs who allegedly stole money from the companies.
We also wanted to look at cases that could be happening in 2020, and shine a light on the elements of the case that connect with modern elements of media coverage. Scrushy’s two lawyers put on a battle for his public image. Your success or failure was and now is still impacted by the way your story is presented by the media, and that was and still still is a huge part of the role the media has with coverage. One of the most interesting elements in this story is the lawyers, and the stories I will say they “craft.” Jim Parkman and Donald Watkins are very interesting men.
ADTV: Talk to me about how you intertwined the lawyers stories into this episode.
BM: We were really lucky for this story to have these two men involved. You never know who involved in part of the case will show up to film or talk about the subject at hand. I was really glad they both were involved. They were a crucial part to the narrative for this story. I think most people thought Scrushy would go with an intense high powered attorney but he picked these two men, they both had a high profile nature to them but they were also this odd couple. These two guys played archetypal roles.
Some people described Parkman as a Gomer Pyle type person. He was a storyteller, he presented images to the jury that helped them understand the story like the rat, and the pancake having two sides. While Watkins was involved in the Tuskegee Syphilis Case. Watkins represented an important voice in civil rights in Birmingham Alabama.
The two were opposites in every way possible, but they worked well together and presented a united front that was crucial in this case. also instrumental in Pushing Scrushy as a Church going man instead of a CEO. This narrative was crucial for
ADTV: The story about the pancake having two sides, and its end result was that fascinating. Was that you who asked about the pancake story?
BM: Yes it was. I became interested in this idea. If you are taking on a case about corporate fraud, I would not know how to tackle this. The strategy of these two men was not numbers. They wanted to craft the story around “What was the other side.” So this is where the pancake metaphor came into play.The CFOs had flipped, so they had an incentive to say Scrushy was involved in the scandal. The government had its case based on this testimony.
The picture and metaphors were worth a 1000 words was a different tactic from the legal defense. They were easy to connect with for the jury. These lawyers were storytellers, and the media loves a good story
We wanted to examine the way the media grabs people’s attention with stories. The legal system and the media have been feeding one another, meshing together. They have been crafting what makes a good story in our media (and entertainment). This story connected a lot of these pieces, and the lawyers were good at presenting their picture to the media.
ADTV: What surprised you the most?
BM: I was really amazed and enthralled by Scrushy starting his own television show. That was one of the things that appealed to me most in telling this story. Scrushy creating this television show allowed him to create his own narrative. Scrushy and his team had to create their own Fox News and counter the attack.
How do you convince people that you are the good guy and not the bad guy? It was exciting to dive deeper into this and see the picture Scrushy shared with the public. Scrushy created a show that showed a loving, kind, Christian man. It was a way to create his own story and work to counter the narrative of him as an evil CEO.
ADTV: It was enlightening and very interesting to see Richard involved in the episode. Did you reach out to Richard’s wife?
BM: I was grateful Richard was in the documentary. I think his presence was important in telling his story, and understanding who he was and where he is today with everything surrounding this story.
I spent a lot of time with Richard and his family. They maintain his innocence. They are still by his side and supporting him. This was a very trying time. His wife was the daughter of a religious lead, and she was there as a support system throughout this entire process.
ADTV: Where did you land with perception of the media and cases like this? Did you have a clearer perspective?
BM: It’s really hard to generalize because the media and the legal system are two behemoth’s. In Scrushy’s case you have him reaching out to the media and him crafting his story. In the Amadou Diallo case, the media defined this case and the person. Both times the media gave you an easy narrative to digest. There are different ways this plays out, and that was the goal of this story.
The media can be this incredible force for good for justice. The media can rise up and be so powerful, it can be a voice for those who do not have the power. My goal was to show the power of the narrative that is created by the media through Scrushy’s case.
At the end of the day, the show is trying to get you to understand the way we digest media. Trial by Media is actually about the before, during and after. Public perception can change public narratives and the way to assess innocence and guilt. You see lasting impacts too. For example the Bernard Getz case people have leveraged the narrative of “Stand Your Ground” as a motto they use to this day. I think the media is a powerful tool, but it all depends on the narrative and the way the media leverages a talking point.
Trial By Media is now streaming on Netflix.