Election Law, Free Speech, Politics, Reality TV

District Attorney and Major TV Network Sued Over Stupid Reality Show

The most tragically stupid decision was greenlighting a reality show about lawyers. No one cares about watching real-life lawyering. That’s why Nancy Grace exists — to boil salacious cases down to sound bites so viewers don’t have to watch real lawyers.

But almost as stupid was greenlighting a show about a district attorney on the eve of an election and not expecting to run afoul of campaign finance laws.

Imagine running against an incumbent armed with a glossy, major network reality show constantly hyping his effectiveness in office. In the context of a district attorney election, imagine having to run against Adam Schiff after everyone watched a Law & Order marathon.

If that seems unfair, one challenger agrees with you…

The Kings County D.A. election is coming up in September. Well, technically, the Democratic primary is coming up in September, but this is Brooklyn, so that’s really the only election that matters — the Democratic nominee got 99.98% of the vote in the general last time.

Incumbent Charles Hynes is set to star as a real-life Adam Schiff in the upcoming CBS reality show, “Brooklyn D.A.” Basically, watch Cops and then this show and you’ve made yourself a crass, exploitative, reality show version of Law & Order. Since half of the “stars” of this new reality show — based on the tip of Long Island — will be defendants facing time in the state pen, it brings new meaning to being “voted off the island.” It’s kind of “Survivor: Borough Hall”

The show is described in CBS press materials thusly:

“Created by veteran CBS News producer Patti Aronofsky, ‘Brooklyn D.A.’ follows the men and women of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office as they juggle more than 1,000 cases a week,” a press release states. “These hard-charging prosecutors have larger-than-life personalities both inside the courtroom and out. They’re eccentric and living right on the edge. They’re the people living the lives that Hollywood loves to write about.”

Well, that sounds gag-inducing. The promise of “larger-than-life personalities” is going to flop when the audience has to watch 40 minutes of jury selection.

Challenger Abe George does not like it one bit. He’s sued Hynes, the Hynes campaign committee, and CBS in New York County Supreme Court. Hynes is already preparing the “Abe George doesn’t even trust Kings County courts for his own lawsuits — how can we trust him as Kings County D.A.?” ad. George argues that the series is an improper gift to Hynes, granting him free advertising on a major network in advance of the election.

CBS countered:

CBS News spokeswoman Sonya McNair told Courthouse News that George should brush up on the Bill of Rights.

“We are surprised that this candidate would not know about the First Amendment,” McNair said in a statement. “This is obviously a publicity push by a politician.”

This is a poor PR move. The snarky tone and derisive statements about George as a candidate don’t do CBS any favors in a lawsuit where the network is trying to prove that they are NOT willing cheerleaders for the Hynes campaign.

Speaking of poor PR decisions, according to the complaint, Hynes described the impact of the show on the election to Reuters, saying, “if they couldn’t take me out then, boy, you’ll never take me out now.” *Facepalm*

CBS argues that the program is a news documentary and therefore escapes NY campaign finance laws that might apply if the program were a reality show produced for entertainment. And CBS has carefully marketed the show as a news program:

George claims that reply was disingenuous, given how CBS marketed the show on March 27.

“A new reality show will give us an inside look into the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office,” the press release stated, according to the complaint.

“CBS also expressly categorized its announcement on the website under ‘Entertainment.’ This website is still available as of the date of this complaint.

*Double facepalm*

CBS and Hynes may still be able to escape NY campaign finance laws based on Citizens United, which set the table for invalidating the journalistic exception in the new corporate free-for-all of electioneering. If drawing lines between media corporations and regular corporations violates equal protection, then CBS is free to campaign all it wants for Hynes.

And if that’s the case, might I suggest CBS can get started on a reality show following newly announced NYC mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner. They can call it, “Look At My Weiner.”

District Attorney Candidate Claims Incumbent’s ‘Reality Show’ Is a Gift [Courthouse News Service]
Campaigning as the Press: Citizens United and the Problem of Press Exemptions in Law [Nexus]

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