Cleveland TV Station Makes Trial Easy to Understand — Using Puppets

In "The Puppet's Court," a local television station pokes fun at a trial that is so serious in the depth of its corruption allegations that it's almost comical.

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Here at NewsFeed, we’re constantly reiterating that we can’t make this stuff up. And we really mean it this time.

In this case, proof comes in the form of puppet-based news coverage of the federal racketeering trial involving Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Commissioner Jimmy Dimora on broad criminal allegations. He was indicted in September 2010 on 26 corruption charges, and was indicted again last March under the RICO statute accusing him of being part of a criminal enterprise.

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So, this being a federal trial and therefore closed to cameras, Cleveland’s WOIO-TV news director Dan Salamone discussed with his staff the best ways to illustrate the trial, with difficult aspects that are almost comical in their egregiousness. After suggestions on using a comic strip, actors and even animals,  “that’s when we said ‘how about puppets?’” Salamone tells TIME. Before long, the staff enlisted Parma Heights, Ohio-based Natural Bridges Lots of Laughs Company, a local troupe of professional puppeteers, and began to work with them on the scripts they wrote based on the actual testimony in the trial.

And so The Puppet’s Court was born.

Now, the station actually provides serious coverage of developments in Dimora’s trial at the beginning of the 11 p.m. newscast, but Salamone said the puppets are a way to take a satirical look at a trial that has exhausted the Cleveland area and shed a negative light on local government.

“We give people coverage of the trial, which is really the culmination of three and a half years of investigation and testimony,” he said. “However there are aspects of it that are easily material for satire. I think we have it appropriately placed at the end of the newscast, where we have our lighter stories.”

The depiction of the trial is narrated by a squirrel reporter describing the court testimony, which Salamone said is “word-for-word accurate,” and portrayed by other characters made of felt and who also have funny voices. But if you can stop laughing, it becomes clear that Dimora is being accused of taking gifts and payments from businessmen who wanted, and got, lucrative county contracts.

Salamone says his team isn’t the first to make light of serious issues. “News organizations have always had some form of lampooning or satire,” he explained. “Even TIME magazine has elements that are meant for lampooning. There’s a place for it and I think we have it in the right place.”

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