TV movies on regular broadcast channels are mercifully a thing of the past, for the most part. Instead, the made-for-tv movies now show up on the cable channels, like ABC Family (churned out some cheap rom coms) or Hallmark (home of the feel-good cheese-fest). Or, of course, Lifetime, home of the woman-in-peril, family-in-crisis, and true-crime movies we all love.
I have complained before about the reckless speculation that goes into Lifetime true-crime movies. The Amanda Knox movie was shameful in its twisted presentation of the facts. Anyone whose only "knowledge" of that case came from the movie would obviously think she was guilty, or at least very suspect. Those of us who knew the facts, though, could see all the flaws in that movie. It was bad. Then there was the Lifetime movie about Drew Peterson, which I watched, just so I could criticize. The movie didn't let me down because it showed lots of scenes of Drew and his missing-presumed-dead fourth wife. Including a scene on the morning she disappeared, a scene they couldn't possibly have any reference source for what with Stacy having not communicated with anyone.
Now maybe the producers of these movies will tell you it's clear which parts of the movie must be speculation because they depict scenes that couldn't possibly be known by anyone who's around to talk. But they also want people to believe that their true-crime movies are sourced and as factual and accurate as possible. They can't really have it both ways, though. Either your movie is based in fact or it's fictionalized. Existing in this netherworld between true and speculative is a big problem.
You know I love the First Amendment as much as anyone and I hate to see free speech infringed in any way. But I also really hate lies and reckless disregard for the truth, especially if it prejudices a criminal defendant. So I had some mixed emotions about the New York judge who issued an injunction against a Lifetime movie that was set to premiere this weekend. The defendant, Christopher Porco, challenged the movie as infringing on a New York law that prohibits the use of a person's "name, portrait, picture or voice is used … for advertising purposes or for the purposes of trade without the written consent first obtained."
I'm pretty sympathetic to Porco's claim. I've always thought there was something pretty unseemly about cheap movie productions and pot-boiler books trying to turn a profit off of someone else's tragedy. It appears that Mr. Porco has already lost his direct appeal, so he has less of an argument about potential prejudice to his criminal case than some other movie subjects have had. Sometimes, the tv movie actually pre-dates the trial, as I believe was the case for Drew Peterson. That is very troubling to me, the idea that movie producers could set the narrative that a trial defense team has to fight against.
But I also don't want media outlets to be prohibited from writing or otherwise publicizing criminal cases or other topics in the public arena. I just want there to be some accountability for media outlets who play fast and loose with the facts. People really shouldn't be allowed to make up their own facts surrounding a criminal case just because it makes the movie narrative better.
In the end, it appears that Lifetime will get to air the movie on Saturday as planned. Porco might have won that brief injunction, but Lifetime won the next round. The movie will air. It undoubtedly has scenes that can't possibly be sourced. It undoubtedly leaves out facts that would alter a viewer's perception of aspects of the case. Many viewers will undoubtedly come away thinking they know everything they need to know about Christopher Porco's guilt. (I know nothing of the facts of the case and have no judgments about it at all.) Lifetime will undoubtedly soon be hard at work at its next irresponsible true-crime movie. And I will keep thinking there's something not quite right about the whole process.