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The move was scheduled the day before the hearing.
The judge presiding over the Miami federal courtroom where former President Donald Trump was indicted on Tuesday made the decision to ban electronic devices inside the courtroom, a major setback for news organizations that need to quickly relay information from historic proceedings to the outside world. Without access to electronic devices, the basic task was a formidable one.
After examining the court on Monday, the CNN team came up with a plan — one that ultimately led the news network to first report that Trump was in custody and that he was in jail. Entered a not guilty plea 37 cases related to his mishandling of classified intelligence documents.
It began by hiring a group of local high school students as production assistants for the day. Noah Gray, CNN’s senior anchor producer for special events, grew up in the Miami area and attended Palmetto Senior High School. Contacting his former teacher, who heads the school’s television production program, CNN said he wanted to quickly hire some of his students to help with his reporting efforts.
CNN’s Lucas Hudson, Hannah Rabinowitz, Tierney Sneed, Lucas Anson, Sebastian Soto and Janah Issa pose for a photo outside a federal courthouse in Miami on June 13, 2023, a day after former President Donald Trump was arrested and jailed.
On Tuesday, several of the recruited students were brought to court and sat in an overflow room with reporters Tierney Snead and Hannah Rabinowitz. As the investigation unfolded and developments were made, Snead and Rabinowitz wrote their report on notepads, tore out sheets of urgent news, and handed them to a student. The students directed a statement to one of their classmates who was standing at one of the court’s two pay phones.
But there was a twist: the pay phones in the courthouse could only dial local phone numbers. To overcome the final hurdle, CNN’s staff came up with a plan to have a production assistant dial her own cell phone, which was in a nearby RV that the network uses as its mobile headquarters.
CNN regional news gathering director Brad Parks, who was inside the RV, then picked up the phone, typed up a report, and relayed the information to the Washington, DC bureau. Once the report was released by senior leaders in Washington, it spread to the control room and the network. And, from there, it was finally relayed to CNN’s anchors, who relayed the news to viewers around the world.
“In all my years of producing in the industry, I’ve never been involved in a process as complex as this live game of professional telephone,” Gray told me Tuesday, after the trial ended.
A significant effort to report on court proceedings is necessary because of the archaic structure in which the US federal courts operate. The public has remarkably little access to cases in federal courts, no matter how consequential or unusual.
No cameras. No audio feeds. No phone lines to listen to. In this case, there was only a courtroom with limited seating and an overflow room. Courtroom paintings were the only scenes visible to the public. Only the artists’ songs will go down in the history books.
However, given the mile-high stakes of a former president facing criminal charges and running for re-election, calls to allow more transparency have been renewed. In fact, several times during Tuesday’s hearing on television, legal experts highlighted the critical issue.
“I think it’s long overdue,” CNN senior legal analyst Eli Honig told Jake Tapper, describing the federal courts as “stubbornly antiquated” and “on their high horse.”
“This pearl-clutching has been going on among judges for decades,” Honig said. “‘We don’t want our activities to become a spectacle here.’ Well, what do I think? We have to see it. To put it more precisely, we have a right to see it.
On MSNBC, former Acting Solicitor General Neil Katyal made a similar argument. Katyal argued that in this particular case public access would benefit everyone.
“I think the benefits of public access to Trump and the prosecution will be reduced,” Katyal told Nicole Wallace. “Because Trump can be sure that the public will notice any inequity. The live stream can be used to combat any misinformation that Trump tries to spread.
“So I think this is the people’s court, and it’s what our American taxpayer dollars are paying for, and all Americans can see it,” Katyal added.
It remains to be seen whether greater transparency will eventually be delivered. But despite obstacles in the federal court system, newsrooms can find a way to rise above them and deliver news — as evidenced Tuesday.