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Steinberg Case Also Puts Live TV Coverage on Trial

Times Staff Writer

Long before the case went to court, it had provided plenty of fodder for the headline writers at the tabloids and had received extensive television coverage here: The story of a child’s death, family violence and drugs.

So it was not unexpected that all three of New York’s network-owned TV stations preempted their daytime schedules to air live the courtroom testimony of Hedda Nussbaum about beatings by her one-time lover, who is charged in the death of their adopted young daughter.

The telecasts of her often shocking testimony came at the trial of Joel Steinberg, a disbarred lawyer, and proved the most extensive since New York State began an 18-month experiment, to end in May, of allowing TV in court.

The Steinberg trial, during which Nussbaum last month spent seven days on the witness stand before concluding her testimony, recessed Dec. 21 for the holidays. It is to resume today.

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The network-owned stations covering it--WCBS-TV, WNBC-TV and WABC-TV--either have no plans to go live again with it today or have made no decision on that yet, station officials say.

But WCBS-TV news director Paul Sagan hopes that what has aired live so far helps lead state officials to conclude that TV in the courts is not disruptive, as was once feared, and should be allowed on a regular basis, as it now is in 44 states, including California. (Federal courts still bar TV coverage of their cases.)

“There hasn’t been a state, as far as I know, that went backward once they started it,” Sagan said, referring to trials in which, as is the case in the Steinberg trial, still photography and TV cameras are allowed, albeit at the discretion of individual judges.

The prosecution in the Steinberg case contends that he struck 6-year-old Lisa, in November, 1987, in their Greenwich Village apartment, then failed to summon medical help for almost 12 hours, at one point smoking cocaine with Nussbaum as Lisa lay comatose on the bathroom floor. According to city officials, Steinberg bypassed adoption procedures when he acquired the child from an unwed mother.

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He is charged with manslaughter for blows that the prosecution says killed the child and with second-degree murder for “depraved indifference” in allegedly failing to take action to save her afterward.

Similar charges against Nussbaum, the state’s major witness, were dropped on grounds she had been too battered by Steinberg to have struck the child or to have taken action to save her.

Sagan’s station had the most live coverage of Nussbaum’s testimony; he said the telecasts totaled 21 hours over a six-day period.

WNBC aired the testimony live for four days. WABC said it aired only the first two days of testimony.

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(Cable Network Network, which previously has aired live coverage of other much-publicized court cases, among them the trial of socialite Claus Von Bulow, initially didn’t air Nussbaum’s testimony live. A spokeswoman said that the station changed its mind later and aired a total of three hours of her testimony Dec. 12 and 13.)

The coverage was on a pooled basis, with only a single TV camera allowed in the courtroom.

Like its local rivals, WCBS lost money--Sagan had no estimate--because it bumped its usual soap operas, other entertainment programs, and their commercials to air Nussbaum’s testimony.

Ironically, two preempted shows were “On Trial” and “People’s Court.”

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Why did WCBS stay live with Nussbaum’s testimony so long?

The reason, Sagan replied, was that “it really shed light on a variety of things, the broader issues in cases of child abuse, family violence and drugs.

“We also felt that, having covered her direct testimony, we had to do the cross-examination, so we stayed with the full thing.”

The ratings and viewer reaction resulting from the live coverage were varied, at least at WNBC and WCBS. WABC news director Bill Applegate wasn’t available for comment.

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Terry Baker, WNBC’s news director, said that despite the extensive publicity given the Steinberg case and Nussbaum’s testimony, his station’s ratings for its coverage of her testimony didn’t change much from what it usually had for its daytime entertainment fare.

“It didn’t seem to me that there was any effect, any higher (ratings) at all,” he said. But soap opera fans heavily protested the pre-emption of their favorite programs, he added.

He had no estimate of how many protesting letters the station got, “but it was a fair amount, probably as many as I’ve gotten on any one issue in the six months I’ve been news director here.”

It was a different story at WCBS. Sagan said that for the most part, his station’s ratings went up during its Nussbaum telecasts: “On most days, I think we were double or triple the average for each time period.”

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And there were few protests by soap opera fans, he added. “I think part of the reason is that we provided (soap opera plot) summaries on our noon news that week for the people,” he said.

The summaries--normally delivered by the editor of “Soap Opera Digest” only each Monday as part of a new noon news feature on the station--included the plots of soaps on the rival stations, he said.

“The kinds of calls we got were on the days the (court) sessions started late,” Sagan said. “We got lots of calls from people saying ‘Where’s the trial? Why hasn’t it started?’ ”

New York’s 18-month experiment with TV in its courts will end May 31. Then a committee will prepare a report on the test for Gov. Mario Cuomo, state chief judge Sol Wachtler, and the state legislature.

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Legislation would be needed to make TV in the New York courts--when presiding judges allow it--a permanent thing.

WNBC’s Baker hopes that will happen, but cautions that the judicial jury is still out on that:

“I think as it (televised court coverage) has proceeded through the year, judges have come to feel more comfortable with it,” he said. “Many of their reservations about it haven’t come to pass . . . the disruptions, people playing to the cameras, haven’t in fact happened.

“But there’s always the possibility they’ll decide at the end of the experiment that it’s enough” and once again bar TV from the courtroom, he said.

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