Journalist and lawyer Jeff Toobin talks politics

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Author: Matt Kunzweiler

Jeffrey Toobin, CNN senior legal analyst, staff writer for the New Yorker and bestselling author of “Too Close to Call: The Thirty-Six-Day Battle to Decide the 2000 Election,” spoke to an overcrowded lecture room in McCardell Bicentennial Hall on Monday afternoon.

Longtime friend and Middlebury Scholar in Residence Bill McKibben introduced Toobin as someone uniquely able to “cross the boundaries between elite and mass journalism.” As Toobin took the floor, this became immediately apparent – he covered a wide range of legal cases with noticeable ease and charisma, making his topics accessible to all members of the audience.

Toobin’s lecture covered two main topics. First, he addressed the way in which high-profile legal cases have occupied the media’s focus since the O.J. Simpson trial. Second, he discussed how politicians have been proved more and more willing to use the legal system as a battleground to settle issues split down party lines.

Toobin pointed to the O.J. Simpson trial as the media event responsible for inspiring the public’s infatuation with high-profile celebrity trials – or “entertainments.” The O.J. spectacle involved almost every one of America’s favorite preoccupations – “Hollywood, sports, sex and violence.”

The trial “created its own demand,” said Toobin. Before O.J., the job of television legal analyst did not exist. After the public learned that courtroom drama could be just as engrossing as any other news story – or daytime drama, for that matter – the media has been eager to meet this new demographic. Monica, Martha and Kobe have all been drenched by the media’s spotlight. And even the Scott Peterson trial – “a celebrity trial without a celebrity” – has received ample attention. Toobin joked that ever since the public’s fascination with O.J. “there has been a ‘trial of the century’ almost every year.”

Toobin then discussed what he called “the merged political/legal event,” which refers to any case where politicians have sought to settle bipartisan disputes through the legal system. These events often concern “public interest issues” such as abortion, the environment and gay marriage. He acknowledged that the media’s recent attention to celebrity trials has helped make political cases more accessible to the average viewer, as the pop trials have helped familiarizedaudiences with courtroom vocabulary and the legal system.

In these merged political/legal events, Toobin claimed that Republicans have exhibited a “ruthlessness” unrivaled by Democrats. As critical as this may seem, Toobin admitted that the Republicans’ legal strategies have been highly effective in achieving their desired ends, compared to the Democrats’ relative passivity in this regard. This has been demonstrated by the Clinton impeachment, the 2000 presidential election recount and the Gray Davis recall.

Commenting on the current state of television news, Toobin mentioned that network news viewership has fallen in recent years, while cable news ratings are on the rise. He noted that Fox News offers a “European” approach (that is, a perspective influenced by a certain political party). When asked whether CNN would ever become the left alternative, counterbalancing Fox News, Toobin assured the audience that CNN’s mission has been to hold an objective middle ground, and he could see no reason for this to change.

Those who heard Toobin’s lecture were unanimously impressed by his presence and knowledge, but many of the college students in the audience were more interested in the journalistic process than the specific legal cases. Toobin addressed this quickly, explaining that the greatest challenge of writing for the New Yorker is often coming up with story ideas that will not be featured in the New York Times or on the local nightly news.

Toobin was, however, dealing with a somewhat divided audience – the older, non-student audience members ended up dominating the question and answer session by asking for Toobin’s wisdom on a number of specific legal cases in the news.

Although he could not offer greatly detailed perceptions into these issues due to time constraints and the variety of questions, Toobin was still able to offer impressive insights with the succinctness of a true television pro.