In the latter part of the 20th century and into the early part of the 21st, Chicago was the daytime talk show capital of the world.
Everybody knows about “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and its unprecedented and legendary 25-year run, from the mid-1980s to 2011. Before that, Phil Donahue presided over his groundbreaking national talk show at WGN-TV and then at WBBM-TV in Chicago from 1974 until 1985. And starting in 1991 and continuing through the turn of the century, the beautiful NBC Tower in Chicago housed two giant steaming piles of noisy, soul-crushing, idiotic, broadcast garbage: “The Jerry Springer Show” and “The Jenny Jones Show.”
The latter program is featured in Episode 1 of the illuminating and provocative Netflix limited documentary series “Trial by Media,” which devotes an hour each to six high-profile and sensational criminal cases that drew the attention of news organizations from around the country and sometimes around the world.
On March 6, 1995, “Jenny Jones” taped a typically exploitative episode titled “Same Sex Secret Crushes.” A Michigan man named Jonathan Schmitz had agreed to appear on the show after the producers told him he’d’ learn the identity of someone who had a big crush on him.
When the secret admirer turned out to be Schmitz’s neighbor Scott Amedure, the gay “twist” was played for big laughs. Three days after the taping, Schmitz killed Amedure. The show never aired.
Of course, no one but Schmitz was directly responsible for the death of Amedure. But one can’t help but wonder how Jones and her producers could sleep at night — and why the show continued for eight years after this horrific incident.
Episode 2, titled “Subway Vigilante,” revisits the notorious case of one Bernhard Goetz, a seemingly mild-mannered New Yorker who on Dec. 22, 1984, was surrounded by four young men on a subway train in Manhattan — and proceeded to shoot all four.
The New York tabloids and worldwide media went into a full-on frenzy covering what Dan Rather called “the most notorious subway ride in history.” For a time, many in the news media and among the public hailed Goetz as a crusading hero who stood up and defended himself at a time when New York was a city in chaos — but the more the press learned and reported about the details of the shootings, the less favorable the opinion of Goetz became. The media compared Goetz to the Charles Bronson vigilante character in “Death Wish.” (Some 35 years later, “Joker” featured a subway shooting scene clearly modeled after the Goetz incident.)
This episode concludes with a chilling excerpt from Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa’s radio show, with Goetz, on the phone, saying of the shootings, “There are many things in my life I regret. I don’t think that’s one of them.”
Subsequent episodes of “Trial by Media” dig deep into the media’s role in covering:
- The police shooting of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant who was shot and killed by four plainclothes NYPD cops who mistook him for a rape suspectt.
- The case of Richard Scrushy, an Alabama business mogul who lived a flashy lifestyle and even hosted a Christian TV show with his wife until he was charged with money-laundering, extortion, obstruction of justice, racketeering and bribery.
- And the “Big Dan’s” trial, which launched a national debate about cameras in the courtroom after live TV broadcasts of the 1984 trial of four men accused (and convicted of) gang-raping a young woman on a pool table in a New Bedford, Massachusetts, bar called Big Dan’s as onlookers reportedly cheered. (Four years later, Jodie Foster won an Oscar for her portrayal of a rape survivor in “The Accused,” loosely based on the Big Dan’s case.)
Though “Trial by Media” is about some of the most widely covered, hot-button cases of the last half-century, the tone is somber, reflective and fact-based, heavy on archival footage and present-day interviews with individuals who were connected to the stories on one side of the camera or the other.
The Chicago bookend is completed with the final episode, titled simply “Blago!” Even though most Chicagoans are well-versed — EXTREMELY well-versed — on the rise and fall of Rod Blagojevich, it still makes for fascinating TV, as we see the helmet-haired one absolutely lighting up whenever he’s on camera, whether it’s a media scrum, a national TV talk show appearance or “Celebrity Apprentice.”
This episode takes us from Blago’s humble beginnings to his meteoric political rise to his trial and conviction and his return home in February after President Donald Trump commuted his sentence.
Of course, being home with his family is infinitely preferable to a prison cell in Colorado — but the former governor of Illinois barely had unpacked when the current governor started urging everyone not to go outside.