The Public Eye Chat With…Andrew Cohen

It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the Public Eye Chat. This week's subject is CBS News Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. You can read excerpts, and listen to the full interview, below.

to listen to the interview.
Brian Montopoli: You can be fairly outspoken and confrontational, especially when it comes to your writing. I think of your strongly negative comments about Judge Larry Seidlin from the Anna Nicole case – who, as you know, CBS News later reached out to as a possible contributor. Do you ever feel pressure to tone it down?

Andrew Cohen: No. I think that CBS has been very good to me, in most instances, in allowing me to offer my honest opinion. Sometimes, I've written things that I have gone through and looked at with editors. They've convinced me that I've written a little too angrily, and I've changed it. And I've agreed to change it. Because I feel sometimes that you can – especially with the Internet – that you can lose not the meaning of your message, but the import of it, and the effect of it, if you are too hyperbolic. And so I try to avoid that if I can.

I think that part of the reason they're paying me, especially in my own pieces, where I can actually take on a subject, and chew on it, and provide more than a twelve second sound bite, is to be provocative. And is to get people thinking. And if there is a trend or a pattern I'm seeing, or a level of conduct by an official, and I feel that official deserves to be criticized, I have the ability to do that, as long as I back it up with some measure of facts and evidence.

I've done it in the case of the judge who presided over this case. I wasn't the only one who did it, certainly. It wasn't a close call in my view. I thought that the episode of him presiding over that hearing was so awful, after 10 years of doing this, I needed to write about it.

Brian Montopoli: Why are some members of the media so quick to rush to judgment before cases are settled? I'm thinking specifically of Nancy Grace essentially convicting the Duke students on her show without a lot of evidence. And that's not unheard of – it's not just Nancy Grace, certainly.

Andrew Cohen: You know, it's very difficult. And if you do feel pressure as an analyst, you feel pressure sometimes to predict more than is humanly possible to predict early on in a case. I have been on both sides of that. I have been in situations where you have defense attorneys complaining that there has been a prejudgment on their behalf, and I have been in cases where the government is saying, "hey, there's a prejudgment on behalf of the defense."

I think that you have to be careful. My experience from covering trials for CBS News, and even briefly when I was involved in them as a lawyer, is that things are rarely what they seem to be at the start…I think [analysts are] most effective when they say "wait a minute here. Let's not rush to judgment."

Now, I did that on behalf of prosecutor Nifong, in the defense case in the Duke case, and I got hammered for it by supporters of the defendants. I said, "Hey guys, even though it looks like a really awful case, with very little evidence, we don't know what we don't know. And surely it would be unreasonable for a prosecutor to bring a case that appears so weak. Let's wait for it to unfold."

Now, that seemed to me to be a good idea at the time. It's the kind of courtesy that I would extend to defense attorneys and prosecutors all over the country in a case like this. I turned out to be wrong. But when I said that, I was hammered by supporters of these students, who pilloried me for being an apologist for Nifong. I stand by what I did – I would do it again – I think it's a smart thing to do. It just so happens in that one case, it really was as bad as everyone was saying.

Brian Montopoli: Does the media do a good job in any particular area when it comes to covering the law? And is there any particular area where the media does a terrible job when it comes to covering the law?

Andrew Cohen: Well, the answer to that question depends entirely on the issue, on the subject. I would love to see the media cover the Supreme Court better. But the Supreme Court doesn't make it easy. The cases that get to the Supreme Court often are not the kind of cases that translate well into electronic media – television or radio.

And as far as complex issues go, the law is not a made for the television beat. It just isn't. Unless you have drama like you had in Anna Nicole or O.J. Simpson. Unless you have characters in a drama that people are familiar with, like O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson. So it is a challenge, and an opportunity for people who cover the law, to try to humanize it for people. To try to personalize it for people.

Brian Montopoli: When you say the Supreme Court doesn't make it easy, what do you mean by that?

Andrew Cohen: Well, the Supreme Court obviously hasn't opened itself up to cameras. It's just now beginning to release audio tape. To me, the tragedy of the past ten years when it comes to the law is that the legal proceedings that people remember – the O.J. Simpson case, now the Anna Nicole Smith case, maybe the Michael Jackson trial – were actually spectacles. And really rare occurrences in the justice system.

99.9 percent of the time when you have a trial, whether it's a murder trial or a civil case, there is decorum, there is order, there is respect for the law, there is good judging, and good lawyering, and well behaved witnesses, and earnest jurors. And it's a shame, with the exception of Court TV in some cases, that those things don't get through to the American people.

It's a shame that there isn't a federal court TV, where you have federal trials that are televised 24 hours a day. It's a shame that people don't get to hear how smart the lawyers are who practice before the US Supreme Court, and how smart – brilliant – the Justices are. That to me is a tragedy. I don't know that it's going to be changed. But to me it's a tragedy that those things don't come out, and yet people will think when they go to court they're going to get a Judge Seidlin, or when they go to court they're going to get a Judge Ito. And that's the perception, sadly, that many people have.