Though the true intentions of the media is to inform the masses in an objective and thorough manner, oftentimes it characterizes people or groups of people in ways that rely more on opinion than objectivity. This can lead to a biased misrepresentation of not only the group being portrayed or examined by the media, but it can also lead to a complete distortion of the truth.
Some of the media-generated generalizations that people often accept are begun and perpetuated by the common population through years of experience and time building up certain prejudices. Perhaps in part because lawyers are most often involved in life’s most difficult and painful times for most, they are often viewed negatively and portrayed as such in the media. The litigious nature of the United States also has people viewing lawyers as opportunists or motivated solely by selfish desires, which mostly involves financial success, power, and influence. Even in popular fiction and movies about lawyers, the good-natured and decent lawyers are often forced to contend with an overwhelming opposition of greedy and immoralL.
However, it is when these stereotypes and generalizations transfer into the supposedly objective news media that the real impact of the inaccuracy can be seen and felt, as people put their trust and faith in organizations they believe to be nonbiased. In two articles by The Chicago Tribune and Newsday, lawyers are portrayed in ways that make them appear motivated solely by money and looking for every possible advantage to help them achieve their goal, including being petulant and accusing others.
A recent story in the Chicago Tribune contains the headline: “Lawyer for Chicago in O'Hare expansion project has ties to DuPage County chief: Board chairman says he did nothing to help attorney land contracts.” The story, written by James Kimberly, suggests in its title that the lawyer may be less than honest, and possibly a criminal, who has not only deceived the government but also the general public about business dealings. The fact that it also offers an addendum stating that the county chief denies such charges insinuates that there is a conspiracy afoot and each man is possibly lying. While this is not the entirety of the story, the title suggests so much in so few words.
As the story is detailed in the article, attorney William Thomas was hired by the city of Chicago’s proposed expansion of O'Hare International Airport and has been paid more than $112,000 representing Chicago in routine real estate transactions (Kimberly). While this might not necessarily be news of interest or scandal, as explained in the headline,
Thomas has connections to attorney and DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom, whose position in the local government could possibly have been used to secure Thomas the lucrative job, as the project was awarded without any formal competition between lawyers. Without the fairness afforded to contracts that must be competed for, there is little way to see if Schillerstrom did indeed use his connections and influence within the government to help his former associate that worked for him at his law firm a few years prior.
With both men being lawyers and benefiting so much by their relationship, the implication can be made that they are in cahoots. According to the story, “Thomas' hiring by Chicago came two years after Schillerstrom made an abrupt about-face on the $15 billion airport expansion and modernization. DuPage County had fought the project after it was announced in 2001, but in January 2003, without advance notice, Schillerstrom introduced a resolution in support of it” (Kimberly).
By failing to offer explanation for the turnaround, it appears as though Schillerstrom was being intentionally duplicitous. Schillerstrom also relents, “Did the fact that he worked for me help? Perhaps. Did I call up and say, 'Give this guy some work?' No” (Kimberly). Thomas also refused to discuss how many pieces of property he helped close on, as he is compensated based on the number of closings, but the media found him involved in nearly half of the two-hundred they investigated.
While Thomas offered only his qualifications as a defense, he also insisted: “I in no way benefited from what he did for the City of Chicago. I am not getting money from him. Period” (Kimberly). In the end, the media portrays both men as opportunistic, even though it fails to come to any definitive conclusions regarding the complicity of either man. However, because of the way they are portrayed in the article and the manner in which the facts are explained, it appears as if each man did indeed have a private agreement.
In another story from the same day, this time one that appeared in Newsday, Eden Laikin presents a story about lawyers who act disrespectful and impudent in court. The defense attorney for a former building inspector on trial on charges of coercion and bribe receiving portrayed the key witness as a liar and said three other inspectors whose testimony corroborated the witness’ testimony had simply backed up his lies (Laikin).
Defense Attorney Michael Rosen of Manhattan all but called the prosecutors liars themselves, saying that they failed to prove the case against his client and offered only “smoke screens” to divert focus from their key witness’ lack of credibility. The prosecutors then offered their rebuttal by instead saying that the defendant was actually the liar and that he had extorted money from the witness to pursue his own “greed and ambition” (Laikin).
The irony is that the witness himself is testifying after being brought up on his own bribery charges, but receiving immunity from the court to testify against the defendant. With the lawyers do nothing more than going back and forth accusing each other of representing liars, which in effect they both are, they come of as having loose morals and nothing more than the desire to win no matter if their courtroom is righteous or just. Far removed from the lawyers of old, who were characterized by their passionate defense of liberty and justice, these lawyers are characterized almost as if they are children incessantly arguing back in forth and associate with the dregs of society as their equals.
While it is the duty of all lawyers to represent clients to the best of their ability, the story portrays them as nothing more than protectors of criminals, implying that even those on the side of the prosecution are also tainted by dishonesty and criminal activity.
Even if the prosecution claims to have justice on its side, and that the defendant had a vested interest in the re-election campaign of the politician that hired him to be a building inspector, they were still obligated to qualify the credibility of their witness: “No one is condoning [the witness’] bribing of Joe Madden. But ... [the witness] did not create the situation going on” (Laikin). Once again, lawyers are portrayed as clever, morally ambiguous, and only concerned with imposing superiority over others, in this case once again other lawyers.
Both of the recent news stories about lawyers show a limited picture of what are obviously complex situations. Any time people are forced to go to court, whether on criminal or civil charges, lawyers can be a boon or a bane to the people involved with them.
However, it seems they are being portrayed increasingly as opportunistic, greedy, petty, and most often a hindrance to the true pursuit of justice. In these stories, as well as many other media portrayals of lawyers, they are depicted as only concerned with winning. While this is a dangerous generalization, for the media to perpetuate or private citizens to embrace, it creates dramatic headlines that capture the public’s attention and guile. Until the media begins portraying all possible sides of a story, there will always be a gaping chasm between justice and news.
Kimberly, James. “Lawyer for Chicago in O'Hare expansion project has ties to DuPage County
chief: Board chairman says he did nothing to help attorney land contracts.” McClatchy - Tribune Business News. 17 Jun 2008. 17 Jun 2008. <http://proquest.umi.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/pqdweb?index=15&did=1495877781&SrchMode=1&sid=2&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1213739405&clientId=20179>.
Laikin, Eden. “Defense calls witness liar at inspector trial.” McClatchy - Tribune Business News.
17 Jun 2008. 17 Jun 2008. <http://proquest.umi.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/pqdweb?index=9&did=1495833961&SrchMode=1&sid=2&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1213739405&clientId=20179>.