On November 17, while a grand jury in St. Louis County was deciding whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, Ari Melber '09 was talking about the ways that new media was affecting the case.
"In the pre-Internet era, there were prerequisites for internal and external accountability, checks and balances that prevented political and public pressure from exerting force on the law," said Melber, who hosts the MSNBC daily news program The Cycle. "The networked world we now live in has totally disrupted that precedent. The nature of the Internet is such that people no longer have to rely on The New York Times or the television networks for information. There are a lot more people in the game, who may not view the case from a legal perspective, but who still have a powerful platform to affect public discourse."
"Are we in a different place legally," he asked, "because we're in a different place technologically?"
Speaking on "Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in a Networked Era" at Myron Taylor Hall, Melber referenced Brown and Trayvon Martin as examples of local news that quickly expanded to become international phenomena. In both, social media dramatically amplified the impact of their deaths, mobilizing public protests and forcing the mainstream media to cover every possible angle of each story. That focused unprecedented attention on the legal process, with even the president of the United States entering the discussion, and placed enormous pressure on the government to return a guilty verdict-whether or not the evidence in court matched the evidence in the court of public opinion.
For Melber, that represents a fundamental difference in the way the law operates in the Internet era, which is reflected in the prosecution's decision to present all witness testimony to the Brown grand jury, even if it's still too early to fully comprehend social media's impact on the results. "This is a foundational change," he said. "It's a new flavor, a new sizzle on the pressures that have always been there."
Then, taking questions from the audience, Melber talked about his path from Cornell Law student to television journalist, with stops along the way as a First Amendment lawyer at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, a correspondent for The Nation, and a guest host on MSNBC's All in with Chris Hayes, The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, and The Rachel Maddow Show before becoming a co-host on The Cycle, where he covers the intersection of law and politics, including an upcoming story on Ferguson.
"I think we're all able to better participate in social media conversations about Ferguson after hearing Ari Melber's talk," said Ryan Madden, president of the Cornell chapter of the American Constitution Society, which sponsored the presentation. "ACS believes the law should be a force to improve the lives of everyone, and that necessarily means engaging people both inside and outside the legal profession."