Popular Culture and the Adversarial System
35 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2006 Last revised: 21 Feb 2008
This article addresses a puzzle: lawyers are the most distrusted and despised of all American professions, whereas the public has a much higher opinion of judges. Yet Americans believe strongly in the adversary system in which all the important procedural decisions during civil or criminal trials are made by lawyers. Even though people crave a justice system that discovers what really happened, they accept one that delivers only trial truth and procedural justice, not factual truth or substantive justice. This article explores various reasons why people might favor the adversary system despite their distrust of lawyers and their craving for truth, such as a belief in personal autonomy, a distrust of government officials, and a lack of knowledge about alternatives. However, the article suggests another possible reason: the influence of popular cultural portrayals of the trial process. Dating back to the days of history's greatest teacher of trial tactics - Perry Mason - media consumers have been taught that the adversary system delivers the truth. We can count on a great lawyer's cross-examination to reveal the identity of the real killer. Even though we hate and distrust lawyers, we want a good one by our side when we're in trouble or an aggressive one prosecuting the crooks. Countless films and television shows since Perry Mason's day have conveyed the same basic message, although in more sophisticated form. According to "cultivation theory," people often extract information and form opinions based on fictitious stories told by pop culture media. Perhaps we derive our bone-deep belief in the adversary system from Perry Mason and the other great lawyers we've watched over the years.
Keywords: public perception of lawyers and judges, pop culture media
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