Blogging About The Blagojevich Verdict

By Edward M.  Bury, APR (aka The PRDude):

Yesterday’s news that a federal jury in Chicago brought in a guilty verdict on only one of 24 counts against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich resulted in the expected media hailstorm of commentary.  Today’s print edition of the Chicago Tribune had seven pages of coverage and photos in the main news section alone.

(Yes, even though I’m the blogging PRDude, I do like to read a print newspaper; just s0mething cool about the way you can snap open a broad sheet publication, then bend and fold it to the article of your choosing.  Back to Blago.)

The broadcast media let their collective voice be heard, too, of course.  The television networks and news radio stations sent out a collective battery of reporters and analysts to cover a story that has captivated much of the nation — and embarrassed the people of Illinois — since Mr. Blagojevich was arrested December 9, 2008 at his north side home.

Two aspects of the arrest, pre-trial proceedings, the trial itself and jury deliberations stand out for me:

1. Why is “Public Relations” Involved? During the months before the trial started, the nation was bombarded with Blagoveich “news.”  The former governor appeared on late night talk shows and that reality show hosted by a New York developer.  His wife, Patti, appeared on a realty show set in a tropical jungle; she made headlines for eating bugs.  A local talk radio station gave Mr.  Blagojevich a weekend slot, and he rarely, if ever, passed up an opportunity to proclaim his innocence.  (Unless, of course, his opportunity to testify in court on his behalf — something he said he would do.)

During the months before and during the trial, media reports periodically referenced that Mr. Blagojevich’s antics, as well as the demonstrative actions from his defense team, were part of a “public relations strategy.”  In today’s Tribune, media writer Phil Rosenthal filed a fine piece on the fact that the trial and proceedings took on the air of a scripted reality show.   But why this line: “But Blago, his lawyers and PR pals treated it all along as a TV game show.”  I agree with the sentiment, but “PR pals?”  This is the kind of uninformed nonsense about public relations that continues to find its way into journalism.

A message to my friends in the media: Public relations, at least as I define it, was not behind Mr. Blagojevich’s antics.  It was a legal strategy, and apparently it worked.

2.  Is This the Way It Will be From Now On? In 1988, a very cool funk/metal/rock band from New York call Living Colour put out a great song called “Cult of Personality.”  Along with a killer guitar solo by Vernon Reid, the song delivers this message:  There are people in this world who can get us to believe what’s not true — simply by being force fed wrong information to the point that fiction becomes fact.   This line — “I exploit you, still you love me. I tell you one and one makes three.” — encapsulates that message.

Given what took place before, during and after the Blagojevich trial, was justice influenced by the cult of personality offered by the defendant and his legal team?  Given relenting media coverage, instant access to information, citizen journalism and social media, can a high-profile case like the Blagojevich trial really be “fair” within the limits of existing laws?

I think the Blagojevich trial has set a sad precedent, one driven by the cult of personality and fueled by an insatiable thirst for a defendant to shout “I’m innocent!” so loud and so often that we believe him.