How The New York Times Is Making Courtroom Transcripts Hilarious
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the cleverly dramatized truth can be far more entertaining than fiction.
By Lorena O'Neil
If the thought of reading courtroom transcripts doesn’t elicit feelings of elation and humor in you, then congratulations. You are totally normal.
Director Brett Weiner and The New York Times, however, have found a way to make what happens on public record pretty damn entertaining. Verbatim is a new series presented by NYT’s Op-Docs column that re-creates legal transcripts (i.e., courtroom trials and depositions) and government hearings word for word, hence the name of the video series. The Op-Docs team and Weiner tell OZY they are working on a number of new scripts and preparing for production in the coming weeks, with plans to publish new episodes this fall.
Anything in public record is fair game.
The first video in the series — Weiner’s “Verbatim: What Is a Photocopier?” — is a seven-minute short re-creating a deposition from an Ohio Supreme Court case. The case involved companies suing the Cuyahoga County Recorder’s Office over a change in its policy about copying records that made it extremely expensive to collect public documents. During a deposition, the lawyer representing the companies suing the recorder’s office questions an IT administrator about the definition of a photocopier; the administrator skirts the issue by arguing the semantics for 10 pages.
Weiner first saw an excerpt of this transcript on his Facebook news feed and thought, “There’s no way this is real. It’s too perfect.” He decided to re-create the deposition with actors, adding his own take on how the lines were delivered. He submitted the short to film festivals, and it gained attention at Sundance and South by Southwest before the Times contacted Weiner about playing it on its site. The video quickly went viral on all of the platforms The New York Times published it on, including, in addition to its site, YouTube, Vimeo and Hulu.
David Marburger, the real-life lawyer who questioned the IT administrator, says he delivered his questions in a more bemused tone than in the re-creation, and the man he was questioning was not intimidated or nervous. Marburger eventually won the case, and the Ohio Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the county had to provide CDs for the documents at $1 a CD.
Since then, Weiner and Op-Docs have been developing an ongoing series. Weiner says he prefers to call the episodes funny or dramatic “re-creations” rather than “re-enactments” and says that’s why it fits well under the “Opinions” section. He adds, “It’s more about using exact words than using original intonations. If I was copying exactly what happened, it wouldn’t really be that interesting.”
Jason Spingarn-Koff is the commissioning editor of the Times’ opinion video section. He says the team’s goal is to make each episode as “funny and insightful” as the photocopier video, using comedy to “illuminate serious aspects of the legal system and government.” Spingarn-Koff says humor is an important aspect of the series because it helps make the stories more accessible. The process is very involved; the team has had a lot of consultations with lawyers and experts, and the staff researcher spends a lot of time going to courthouses to dig through archives, often trying to find a full original document based on a fragment of a case submitted to the Times.
Lawyers and nonlawyers alike seemed to enjoy the photocopier video, and people had differing opinions about whether this was an over-the-top portrayal of what happens in legal depositions or exactly on point. Weiner reveals that he has been approached by lawyers who want to show the video as part of their training sessions on how to deal with depositions and clients. Spingarn-Koff says one commenter was looking forward to the series because it will bring to light absurdities in the legal system that have gone unreported.
“So long as it’s written down and verifiable, it’s open for us to do something with it,” says Weiner. “Our mandate is anything in public record is fair game.”
We can’t wait.
Verbatim: What Is a Photocopier?