If there’s one thing media outlets from across the political spectrum agree on, it’s that the arraignment of Donald Trump is a “spectacle” and a “circus.” These are the words that came up, over and over again, on cable news in the 24 hours before the former President of the United States faced a judge in Manhattan—as though the networks’ own around-the-clock coverage, featuring live footage of absolutely nothing happening at Trump Tower and roundtables of pundits engaging in pure speculation about what would happen on Tuesday afternoon, was not the height of big-top theatrics. The ringmaster-in-chief happened to concur. In a letter, Trump’s lawyers urged Judge Juan Merchan to deny news organizations’ request to allow video cameras in the courtroom, in part “because it will create a circus-like atmosphere at the arraignment.”
Hypocritical or not, they got their way. In a ruling released Monday night, Merchan banned all photography (as well as all electronic devices) from the courtroom, with the exception that five press-pool photographers would be allowed to take still shots at the beginning of the arraignment. “Unfortunately, although genuine and undoubtedly important, the interests of the News Organizations must be weighed against competing interests,” Merchan wrote. Cameras are generally not permitted in New York courtrooms. Precedent aside, legitimate concerns, such as security and the potential for news coverage to prejudice the proceedings, have been raised. Yet the decision not only plays into the hands of Trump’s team, but also strikes a blow against democracy in a country where conspiracy thinking and distrust of the news media are surging.
To address the flimsiest argument against allowing video cameras in this particular courtroom first: the circus came to town long before Merchan issued his ruling. As TIME’s Eric Cortellessa and Brian Bennett noted on Monday: “once the Manhattan District Attorney filed charges against [Trump], he began to choreograph the spectacle that would follow.” By the time the arraignment commenced on Tuesday, that performance had already encompassed fans cheering on Trump’s motorcade from Mar-a-Lago, his departure from Palm Beach International Airport, and his arrival at Trump Tower in Manhattan—all arguably trivial, and all captured on camera for mass consumption regardless. To televise every other moment of this story, as news networks have inevitably done, without allowing video in the courtroom, is kind of like inviting Americans to a circus of major national importance and then forcing them to glean what’s going on in the tent from the carnival barkers, popcorn vendors, and snake-oil salesmen roaming the grounds.
Tuesday’s low-substance sideshow began with a couple hours of broadcast and cable news cameras following the former President’s four-mile journey from Trump Tower to the courthouse. Over shots of closed doors and hallways where officials milled around looking somber, anchors and pundits of all political orientations repeated talking points about the soon-to-be-unsealed indictment, explained what it actually means to be “under arrest,” and attempted to decipher Trump’s mood. Glimpses of the defendant, who some had speculated would address cameras but did not, were few and far between. That didn’t stop talking heads from offering inane close reads; CNN’s Van Jones interpreted a shot of Trump leaving Trump Tower as “a grandad having a very bad day.” Everyone seemed extremely impressed at the serious expression on his face.
Once the unexpectedly lengthy arraignment finally began, actual news started to dribble out. As networks split their screens between live video from the hallway and the press pool’s still photos of Trump in the courtroom, flanked by lawyers and surrounded by officers, we learned that Trump had pleaded not guilty, as expected, to 34 felony counts. The indictment was indeed unsealed. Then it was over. The former President, released on his own recognizance, flitted across the screen for a few seconds as he exited the courtroom. Correspondents called in to their respective outlets with rushed accounts, often interrupted by background noise at the courthouse, of what they’d witnessed inside.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg gave a press conference later in the afternoon detailing his office’s case that Trump was involved in a “catch and kill” scheme directed at influencing the 2016 election. But Trump made sure he’d have the last word, for today, at least, with plans to deliver a speech upon arriving home at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday evening. Given the history of his public utterances at times when he’s felt threatened (e.g. Jan. 6), it seems fair to worry that these remarks will pose their own suite of risks, in terms of prejudicing legal proceedings and jeopardizing public safety. But even in the event that everyone is on their best behavior tonight, the press conference gives Trump the day’s final say in a conversation whose other side—that is, the arraignment of a former President on criminal charges for the first time in U.S. history—happened behind closed doors. He can say whatever he wants, and tens of millions of voters will believe whatever he says.
Of course, that won’t stop reporters who made it into the courthouse from filing factual accounts of the arraignment. But the sizable portion of the electorate that trusts Trump, his political allies, right-wing vloggers, and social-media propaganda bots of shady origin more than the mainstream media could easily come to the conclusion that if anyone is lying, it’s journalists. Conspiracy theories that continue to harm American democracy and destroy individual lives have been launched over far less substantive matters than a President’s prosecution (see: QAnon). Live video footage probably wouldn’t have persuaded everyone who’s fallen all the way down the “deep state” rabbit hole to believe what they were seeing on CBS or MSNBC or CNN or Fox News. But, in an atmosphere where even fake Trump mug shots are a concern, cameras in the courtroom would’ve been the best bulwark available against a flood of misinformation.