Networks Mull Terror Trial Coverage

Tuesday, January 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Court TV, which is leading a fight to televise the trial of an alleged accomplice in the Sept. 11 attacks, will likely have company if a judge allows cameras.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema plans a hearing Wednesday on Court TV's request to set aside rules banning cameras in federal courtrooms for the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui.

``We would give serious consideration to televising it,'' said Dennis Murray, daytime executive producer at Fox News Channel. ``Parts of it will be riveting but, like any trial, it will have dull moments.''

If the request is granted _ which some television executives consider a long shot _ Court TV will likely offer its pictures to any other network that wants to take part. C-SPAN has already expressed an interest.

It would be the most high-profile television trial since O.J. Simpson's murder case, and rekindles the debate among lawyers and prosecutors over what impact TV cameras have on a trial.

Moussaoui last week became an unexpected ally of TV networks when he asked Brinkema to allow cameras to make sure the proceedings are fair. He's charged with conspiring with Osama bin Laden, the hijackers and others to commit the Sept. 11 attacks, and could be sentenced to death if convicted.

TV experts said a televised trial would most likely get extensive, if not gavel-to-gavel, coverage on cable news networks CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Broadcast networks were less sure, in part because the trial would probably not take place until next fall.

``If there was breaking news of vital importance to the American people, we would break into regular programming,'' said Jeff Schneider, ABC News spokesman. ``But at this point the plan is to see how the trial develops and cover it like we would any other news story.''

Court TV has the most to gain if the rules are waived to allow cameras. The Simpson saga made the network and almost broke it, too. At its peak in September 1995, Court TV was watched in an average of 422,000 households per day.

Viewers disappeared when the trial was over; during some months, Court TV was only seen in an average of 45,000 households.

It hasn't reached its Simpson peaks since then, but Court TV Chairman Henry Schleiff has rebuilt the network into a modest success story with a combination of court coverage, documentaries and reruns of network legal dramas. The network has televised about 750 trials since it began in 1991.

Schleiff predicted great interest in a Moussaoui trial. ``Frankly, it is the perfect precedent as to why we should be in federal courts,'' he said.

The terrorist attacks were a crime that affected almost everyone in the United States, and everyone should have the opportunity to see the trial of an alleged accomplice, he said.

But Schleiff was unwilling to predict whether public interest would match that of the Simpson case. Some experts suggest the trial would be more confusing and less compelling than that of the former football star accused of killing his wife.

``It could be like the Iran-Contra hearings,'' Murray said. ``You really had to have been a buff to stay with it and follow all of the intricacies.''

MSNBC chief executive Erik Sorenson also said he expects less public interest than in the Simpson case, but the Moussaoui trial's importance and the likely unprecedented nature of testimony would draw viewers if cameras were allowed.

``We always base our decisions on trial coverage on what else is going on at the time,'' Sorenson said.