CLEVELAND — It's "Sesame Street" meets the unseemly side of politics.
With cameras barred from a high-profile corruption trial, a television station has puppets acting out the sometimes-steamy testimony about hookers, gambling and sexually transmitted diseases. In one scene, a furry hand stuffs cash down the shirt of a puppet prostitute.
"I'm horrified," a laughing anchorwoman said after a segment shown this week on WOIO, a CBS affiliate in Cleveland, where the trial of longtime Democratic power broker Jimmy Dimora is the talk of the town.
The station's news director brought up the idea of using the puppets to lampoon the trial and give a glimpse of what's happening in the federal courtroom. Because cameras aren't allowed, other stations have relied on artist sketches of the proceedings and videos of Dimora walking into court with his wife and defense team.
"It's a satirical look at the trial and, again, I think we have it appropriately placed at the end of the newscast," WOIO news director Dan Salamone said Thursday.
The puppets are in addition to the station's regular coverage of the trial of Dimora, a former Cuyahoga County Commissioner and county Democratic chairman who has pleaded not guilty to bribery and racketeering.
"It's not intended in any way to replace any of the serious coverage," Salamone said.
The station has enlisted a local puppet company to put on the skit. It calls the tongue-in-cheek segment "The Puppet's Court."
It began airing Tuesday at the end of the late newscasts on WOIO and its sister station, WUAB. The stations make it clear that the segments aren't to be taken seriously.
"The testimony is real. The puppets are not," says smirking anchor Danielle Serino.
A talking, buck-toothed squirrel "reporter" provides the play-by-play in an exaggerated, "you won't believe this" tone. A black-robed puppet sits at the judge's bench. And in the jury box, the puppets yawn during the trial.
In one segment, a puppet portrays a witness in the trial who said he paid for a prostitute to visit Dimora during a gambling trip to Las Vegas.
The response to the puppets has been mostly positive.
"Seeing as how both our politicians and justice system seem like clowns or puppets most of the time, this is wholly appropriate!" Mari Upthegrove, of Tavernier, Fla., wrote on the station's Facebook page after seeing one of the segments online.
A few people have criticized the station for blurring the lines between news and entertainment.
Salamone defended the segments, saying it's no different than when newscasts end with a lighter, humorous story.
Karl Idsvoog, a professor at Kent State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, wasn't impressed. "Why would anyone approve that to go on the air because it was dull and boring?" he said.