The O.J. Verdict
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rating the media's performance

The media's scrutiny of the story was relentless. There was nothing that wasn't recorded, analyzed or discussed on television and in print concerning "O.J." However, in the end, many experts not only fault the coverage, but say the Simpson case had a lasting negative impact on the media. Here, in excerpts from their interviews, are the comments of Ted Koppel, managing editor, ABC's Nightline; Brooke Gladstone, managing editor, NPR's On the Media; Alex Jones, Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy; Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Harvard law professor; David Margolick, New York Times reporter for the trial; Alan Dershowitz, member of the defense team; Gerald Uelmen, member of the defense team; Peter Arenella, law professor, UCLA; and others.

Brooke Gladstone

Brooke Gladstone, co-host and managing editor of National Public Radio's On the Media.

Brooke Gladstone

… How would you describe the media's coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial?

Well, if you were to look up "feeding frenzy" in the dictionary, a picture of the O.J. coverage would be a perfect choice to illustrate it. It was a classic example of the mainstream media and tabloid media all merging in [their coverage of] this case, and sometimes mis-reporting it. …

How did members of the mainstream media feel about covering the story?

I think that even though the mainstream media realized that it was going to have to cover this story, there was a certain amount of self-consciousness and embarrassment about the fact that they did have to. I think it was in July of 1994 that Ted Koppel did a story that was devoted to covering the coverage. There was a certain amount of self-consciousness in that, an awareness that sometimes journalistic standards were being if not outright violated, then muddied a bit. And there was a broad discussion about the appropriateness of this merging of mainstream and tabloid media.

But that didn't stop the proliferation of it.

No. It couldn't stop it because as long as there was a hunger on the part of the audience and a risk that the rising power of cable news and its special 24-hour format would start to draw eyeballs away from the networks, they were going to have to stay on it. And in fact, that fear was quite legitimate because many eyeballs did migrate to cable and stayed there. …

What legacy has this left on the media today?

O.J. left an enormous and rather dark legacy across all news media, and particularly cable news. I think it's fair to say that it's a very short hop from O.J. to the "runaway bride." If it doesn't really matter how important a story is, only that it has certain elements of human drama and that's enough to keep it dominating the news channels and crowding out legitimate news, then you have a situation that's sad, because it makes the public less informed. …

The question is why does cable cover stories like this? And of course we know that a huge part of it is that it's cheap. The panel discussions, the speculation, the experts are cheap, and you can keep them going. You don't give people a reason to change the channel because you don't change the subject. And if they're interested, they'll hang in there for the next bit of speculation, however ill-informed it may be. …

Interestingly, so much of this blanket coverage in recent years has been devoted to court trials. And of course in most cases cameras are not allowed in the courts. Back in the O.J. days, during at least part of the proceedings there was a much ballyhooed reenactment [of the court proceedings] that E! Entertainment Television was doing, and this was considered just the absolute pit of journalism. Now E! Entertainment [Television] again did reenactments for the Michael Jackson trial, and there wasn't that same chorus of condemnation [because] we've gotten used to it. We're used to having our real life dramas delivered to us in a way that's fun and exciting and has pictures attached. And if those pictures aren't available, it's increasingly acceptable to us as viewers and to people who are doing news or in the case of E!, to go ahead and make those pictures up. …

Another side effect of the O.J. coverage is that it had proven star-maker ability. Dan Abrams got his career that way. Catherine Crier got her career going that way. And there are a number of others -- Greta Van Susteren got her show directly from her covering as an expert the O.J. Simpson trial. … All of these people had a certain amount of legal training, all of these people were able to talk the talk. Whether or not they had special insight into this case didn't seem to really matter all that much. …

Ted Koppel

Ted Koppel, anchor and managing editor of ABC's Nightline.

Ted Koppel

… Do you remember how many shows you ran on the O.J. Simpson trial?

No, I don't, but I do remember that we tried to avoid doing it too often, and we couldn't avoid doing it almost once a week. What we would usually do is on a Thursday we would try to summarize everything that had happened in the trial up until then. It was impossible to ignore.

The fascinating thing about it was that … every time we did O.J., the ratings went up ten percent. We could see it in the overnight ratings the next morning. And if we had done it every night, Lord knows what would have happened. But we thought once a week was more than enough.

What led you to cover the trial in the first place? Was it the ratings or the sensationalism of the story?

No, there were many stories [we didn't cover]. For example, until the Michael Jackson [child molestation trial] came to its very conclusion, we didn't do it at all. And trial of the murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn son -- we never covered that story. …

We covered the O.J. Simpson case in part because there was huge public interest. But we would not have covered it unless there were substantive issues, and I think there really were substantive issues in the case: Can a black man receive a fair trial? Was his treatment by the Los Angeles police department such that a jury could be convinced that what seems to be slam dunk evidence might in fact have been fabricated in some way?

Those were big issues, and if the trial itself didn't demonstrate that, then certainly the reaction to the verdict demonstrated that more clearly than perhaps anything that's happened in recent years in the United States. …

And yet you later apologized for devoting so much of Nightline's coverage to the story.

Yeah, I felt a certain amount of embarrassment about doing it on a regular basis. As I say, I think we did it at certain times … once a week. Was it really worth that kind of coverage? Probably not. Probably not. …

When you work for commercial television, if you want to have the freedom to do the stories that need to be done, then you have to be prepared on occasion to do the stories that people want to see. On average then you'll get the kinds of ratings that will help you to survive. I had a certain feeling of discomfort, but ... I knew that by doing the O.J. Simpson trial, we could then do programs about conditions in Africa, we could do programs about foreign policy issues that are nearer and dearer to my heart where the ratings would maybe take a little bit of a dive rather than a bump. So on average, the O.J. Simpson trial and our coverage of it, helped us do other stories that we might not have been able to do.

Did the story drive the media or did the media drive the story?

Oh, I think the media drove the story. Look, if Judge Ito had closed the courtroom to cameras, I don't think you would have had anywhere near the kind of coverage that you had with the cameras in there. …

Charles J. Ogletree Jr

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Harvard law professor and director of Harvard's Houston Institute for Race & Justice.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr.

Read the full interview »

… The most disappointing aspect of this entire trial to me was the role of the media. The press went at this case like a bee going after honey. They were just obsessed with it to the point that facts didn't matter; tainting evidence didn't matter; undermining the criminal justice system didn't matter. It was gotcha journalism. It was "If it bleeds, it leads." It was "Anybody who has anything to say, we want to hear it, whether or not we believe it's credible." And I think it was, in a sense, an embarrassment to the First Amendment in the sense that you want to make sure there's free opportunity for expression.

But on the other hand, what the media did was feed the public an image of this trial that was deeply skewed, deeply flawed and ultimately untenable. The press made many, many mistakes, and I think it cost the prosecution losing witnesses, losing evidence and giving the public a perception of guilt without giving them all of the reasonable doubts that were clearly developed during the course of this very lengthy trial.

How do you assess the coverage of the case by the National Enquirer?

The irony is that the press that had the most significant and relevant and tangible evidence turned out to be the National Enquirer.

... The National Enquirer was very effective at saying: "We're going to go to the source. We're not going to do this behind our desk. We're not even going to do it by phone. We're going to go out and saturate the community." They went to places where knives were sold; they followed every rumor; they talked to every witness; and they were able to bring in things in a very significant way that other journalists had just missed. Most journalists were focused on what was going on in the courtroom, and the National Enquirer was focused on what happened outside the courtroom, where evidence is collected and created and preserved.

What mark would you give the media overall?

If I had to grade the media on their performance in the case from start to finish, they would receive a failing grade. ... I think the most significant thing that makes this a D rather than an F is the fact that the trial was shown gavel to gavel to the nation and helped solidify in people's mind some of the reasonable doubts that we would never have imagined if we didn't see it. So that is the only thing that saves it from an F.

But in terms of the way it covered the case pretrial, the way it had these pundits discussing facts about what's in a lawyer's mind, what's in a witness's mind, when they didn't know and had no ability to know, was a failure; their ability to use these graphics that were suggestions about what happened but weren't fact; their reports about ice cream being found on the scene when it didn't happen; their reports about eyewitnesses that didn't exist; their reports about weapons being found that weren't found; their reports on timelines that were inconsistent --

There were so many errors in this -- "Let's get it first" rather than "Let's get it right" -- that led it to a sensational trial…

What about how the white media covered it compared to the African American press?

Two different pictures. The Amsterdam News, the [Baltimore] Afro-American News, the Los Angeles Sentinel, the Chicago Defender -- these black newspapers painted a very different picture because they understood from all too many experiences African Americans [being] wrongfully convicted. They understood police officers who fabricate evidence, who tell lies. They understood that sometimes evidence can be tainted, and they understood that all too often African American men in particular have been convicted.

So we had two different visions of this trial, one through the lens of the Afro-American press and one through the lens of the white press. …

David Margolick

David Margolick, covered the Simpson trial as staff reporter for The New York Times.

David Margolick

… How did The New York Times get involved in the coverage of the Simpson story?

The Times reacted to the story in the way that it often does, which is that it gets kind of dragged into covering something like this. … While it might [have been] leading the evening news and on all the entertainment shows and the Hollywood programs, the Times tried to maintain a certain distance and decorum and didn't devote that much space to it, put its stories inside the paper, rarely put them on the front page. Initially. But as the case came to consume the entire country, all of that changed and the story gradually migrated it's way out towards the front of the paper, so that by the end the Times was all over the story and covering it very conspicuously.

At some point did the lines begin to blur between the Times and tabloids?

Yeah, I think that covering a story like this for the mainstream media was still a bit novel. We were all groping a little bit. One of the things for which my coverage is going to be most remembered -- for better or for worse -- is that I cited the National Enquirer once in one of my stories, and for The New York Times to acknowledge the National Enquirer was considered to be a kind of journalistic Rubicon. We had crossed some line, something fundamental had changed. My feeling was that the Enquirer had broken some stories, and one couldn't ignore their role in all of this. I think it was Geraldo Rivera or it might have been Ted Koppel … who said that the distinction between the Times and the National Enquirer had thereby completely evaporated. I assured them that that was a considerable overstatement. …

Was there any tension between the white reporters and the black reporters who were covering the story?

Well, first of all, there were very few black correspondents covering this case. I can remember two. And as I recall, there was very little discussion between us and them, … and I don't remember much discussion ever between us and them on the racial issues underlying [the case]. Maybe it was just sort of a taboo, you just didn't talk about it. And we didn't. The overwhelming majority of people covering the trial were white. So I can remember you know precious little, if any, interaction between us.

So in your reporting you weren't really looking at this as a trial about race?

We understood that race was an important issue, [but] I guess that we didn't think about the profundity and the depth of that issue, or we underestimated it. I mean, the racial dimension of the case was readily apparent. It was in our faces. So there was no way of ignoring it, but I think white Americans are naïve about racial matters. And I think that we just don't understand how fundamental an issue this was, and our reaction to the verdict was the prime example of that. …

Carl Douglas

Carl Douglas, coordinating attorney for the defense team.

Carl Douglas

… What are your views on how the media covered the trial?

I think the media was very unfair for a variety of reasons, I think racially based. I dare say that this case probably would not have had so searing an imprint on the history and the minds of most Americans if Mr. Simpson had been accused of killing his first wife, a black woman, rather than his second.

The racial component of the case was powered by the media. It sells, I argue. I can remember, quite clearly, that we would come from court and we would have had a very good day, based on the evidence. But the media spin at the end of the day would talk about a particular motion perhaps that Judge Ito had denied that day. Clearly missing the imprint and the power of that day's testimony.

Did you realize the disparity early?

Well, one of my other jobs … was to listen to many of the stories in the news programs at the end of the day, basically to see if our version of the facts was being adequately conveyed. So I was aware of much of the way that the media was spinning the facts of the case.

The spin was very negative throughout. The media try always to handicap a trial, day by day by day. And I would always come out of court talking about -- that's not the way that a criminal trial can be best evaluated. Because a defense lawyer might be making points on day three that would not be clear until far later in the trial -- sometimes, perhaps even waiting until the defense case. So it really was unfair to the defense, who went second, to have this daily handicapping of whether we won this day or not, won that day, which was a tendency of the media to view the case under that sort of a prism.

Did it depress you?

No, Johnnie Cochran didn't allow us ever to have one day of being depressed. …We always had to maintain a positive, confident outlook because we were always confident at the very end that we were going to win. …

David Perel

David Perel, editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer during the O.J. Simpson trial.

David Perel

… In the beginning, did the Enquirer treat the O.J. Simpson story differently than the mainstream media?

Yes. Within days we pretty much threw everything we had at it: just as many reporters and freelancers as we could find, and editors on the scene, calling, knocking on doors, just really old-fashioned door-knocking journalism.

Were these in some way the high days of the Enquirer?

Yeah. This was a unique moment because for the first time the Enquirer found itself covering the same story, side-by-side, on a daily basis with The New York Times, the LA Times, and CNN and simply [because] it was a celebrity story. It was a murder story. It was a story of great national interest. So clearly it fell into the Enquirer's domain of coverage, and it also fell into everybody else's domain of coverage. And it just mushroomed from there. So it was really a unique set of events that brought us all together and pitted us against each other in the race for scoops. …

And you scooped the other papers partly because you paid people to go on the record in your paper. Was this a problem?

Oh, absolutely. The debate of checkbook journalism was in full swing back then, because we do pay people for exclusive and accurate information. And this caused the rest of the media to debate, "Gee, should this be done or should it not be done?" But what turned everybody on their ear was the fact that everything the Enquirer was publishing, everything we were getting, whether we paid for it or not, was a 100 percent accurate. And in fact we were pretty much the only members of the media who weren't publishing anything inaccurate. …

And the defining moment of hypocrisy for the people who were against [our] paying for information came after the trial when Marcia Clark's book came out and Chris Darden's book came out. So these were the people who were trying to undermine certain witnesses' credibility by saying, "Oh, you were paid for your information." And yet at the time they were keeping notes to write a book to be paid for their information. So really, I don't see the difference between those two things. …

What was the feeling among the reporters pool at Camp O.J. about his guilt or innocence?

Most of the reporters who covered this trial believed that O.J. was guilty, and the more the trial went on, the stronger that belief became. There was certainly a pro-prosecution spin or bias to the reporters who covered the case, and maybe that's due to the fact that the information everybody had seemed to strongly indicate his guilt. And also there was more information they had from prosecution sources than there was from defense sources, most of the time.

Was their reporting biased against O.J.?

Well, it was extremely hard for the defense to get out a message that O.J. was innocent when the preponderance of evidence that everybody knew seemed to indicate his guilt. So TV took that and they ran with it, and it became a pro-prosecution spin, just de facto.

At one point the media got so wrapped up in this story that they began interviewing each other.

Yeah, journalists interviewing journalists certainly came into prominence during this time. And you know it became a little absurd, especially if you were covering the trial and you were looking for real news. What sense did that make really in terms of advancing your knowledge of what was going on? I really didn't care what a media writer from another outlet thought was going on. We at the Enquirer were interested in getting facts and advancing the story and beating the competition. I remember saying at the time, "Well, we don't have the luxury of having a media writer. We've got our reporters out on the streets knocking on doors, looking for real information." …

Shawn Chapman Holley

Shawn Chapman Holley, member of the Simpson defense team and managing partner, the Cochran Law Firm.

Shawn Chapman Holley

… Was the media's coverage of the trial helpful or harmful?

The media was very harmful to us, and a couple of things happened of interest that demonstrated that. Johnnie [Cochran] and Carl Douglas and I -- we would ride to court together every day and ride home every day. And [one day] we'd had a particularly good day in court, and we all got in Carl's car and just sat there in the parking lot of the criminal courts building and waited to turn on the radio so we could hear about our wonderful day in court. And we turned to the news station, and the announcer said, "Another devastating blow to the O.J. Simpson defense team." And we all sat there perplexed. I mean, clearly the announcer could not have been where we just were because we had a brilliant day in court. That was the first lesson.

The second lesson was one day that I didn't go to court and sat in my office while working on the case, listening to the pundits who were on the television coverage . ... And I'm half listening as I'm working on the case in my office, and in the afternoon, Johnnie and Carl came in, and they said, "Did you see what a great day we had?" And I said, "You guys didn't have a great day, you had a horrible day," because I had been influenced on some subconscious level by these pundits. So that just goes to tell you that people who were not in the courtroom were listening to the radio, the television, the newspaper, [and] this is where they were getting their information, and they were being influenced on either a conscious or subconscious level to believe that things were going horribly for the defense, that O.J. Simpson was guilty, and that it was going to be a guilty verdict.

Was there any media outlet whose reporting was favorable to the defense?

No, I don't think there was any medium that was favorable to us. …


Well, I think there was a pro-prosecution bias in general. But again, I think it's the same sort of subtle, racist, undercurrent [about] this beautiful blond victim, a good-looking male [victim], and then there is an African American, O.J. Simpson. It just can't help but think that that played a part in it, because I happen to believe as I said before, that had the victims been black, it would not have been the same outcry from the public. …

Mickey Sherman

Mickey Sherman, celebrity defense attorney and frequent legal commentator on television.

Mickey Sherman

… Did the O.J. Simpson trial leave a black eye on the criminal justice system?

… I don't think this was a black eye on the criminal justice system. I don't even blame Judge Ito for getting Larry King's autograph in the middle of the trial. It's silly, but this was kind of a spectacle. Bottom line was, he had a very difficult case to deal with. He had a lot of egos in that room; he had a lot of witnesses, and this is the first real trial where we saw witnesses being seduced by the media.

You may recall early on, some witness -- not major, more of a minor witness -- but she sold her story to some tabloid for $5,000, and oh my god, it's like the justice system was falling apart. [Judge Ito] immediately said, "No, you're not going to be a witness any more," and this was like the beginning of the corruption or contamination process. Nowadays, it was either the Peterson trial or the Blake trial, there was a reporter from People Magazine passing out her cards to the jury. So the contamination of jurors -- or as I like to say, the media-ization of jurors -- will continue, but that doesn't mean that the trials are invalid. But in [the] O.J. [case] any contact … between the jurors or the players and the media was seen as oh my gosh, the world is coming to an end. …

But don't people behave differently when they know that the cameras are rolling?

I tried a case on TV and I've been a commentator on Court TV since the day they went on the air in July of '91, I've been involved in many, many cases, [and] there's no difference. In fact one of the big concerns about Court TV by the entire criminal justice system is that if they put cameras in the courtroom witnesses will not come to court because they don't want to be seen, they don't want to be embarrassed. If it's an organized crime case, if they're a witness against somebody, they don't want their identity known. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Everybody wants to be on television. And that desire to be on television, even though it may just be Court TV or a little blurb on E! or Fox or whatever -- that ability to be on television trumps every other legitimate concern.

People race to court to testify in the most embarrassing situations, whether they're a mistress of the deceased, whether or not they're the rat who agreed to kill the guy's wife, or they accepted $200 to kill somebody but then reneged on it. People will [often] be in the Bahamas when a case is being tried, [but] they line up, they come to court because they want to be on TV. Go figure! It's a great byproduct of the televising of trials, but totally unpredicted.

So you think televising the trials has a positive affect on the outcome?

It is good, because people -- whether it's the state or the defense -- have less trouble getting people to come to court and testify. It's an inducement. It's silly, it's absurd. But you know it's the fifteen minutes. Everyone gets their 15 minutes. …

Gerald Uelmen

Gerald Uelmen, member of the Simpson defense team and professor at Santa Clara University School of Law.

Gerald Uelmen

Read the full interview »

… Since [the] O.J. [Simpson trial], the media [has been] making trials into these incredible circuses. It's like O.J. set the standard, and now we have one of these every year. They call it "a trial of the century", and now we have a trial of the century every year. And I think what the media learned from this whole thing is what this'll do for ratings. People really glom onto this stuff: They watch it, they really want to get involved and follow it.

… But there's one difference: We have not televised a trial from beginning to end in California since O.J. One lesson we learned [is] that the cameras in the courtroom have a tendency to affect the way the trial is conducted. Everyone's affected. The lawyers are affected by knowing that what they're saying in the courtroom is being watched by millions of people. I actually saw lawyers competing as to who was going to be the ten-second sound bite on that evening's news. It affected the witnesses. I mean, we had witnesses who didn't want to come near that trial -- they didn't want that exposure. We had other witnesses for whom their testimony was a gig. I mean, they were going to build their media career on being a witness in the case. People [were] coming out of the woodwork saying they saw stuff that never happened because they wanted to be witnesses. I think that to some extent it, it affected the judge. So, the lesson was once the camera becomes not just an unseen observer, but starts becoming an influence on how the proceedings are conducted, that's when you got to pull the plug and say, "We're not going to televise trials anymore. "…

Alan Dershowitz

Alan Dershowitz, member of the Simpson defense team and Harvard law professor.


Read the full interview »

… [Has the O.J. Simpson trial] had a lasting affect on the media?

I think after the O.J. Simpson case, the media realized it was on to something that Americans love: trials of celebrities. If [you're] not a celebrity, we'll make you a celebrity. The Scott Peterson case -- he wasn't a celebrity; he became a celebrity. And I think media-driven trials have now become a reality. You get to be tried both in the court of public opinion, by the talking heads on television, and you get to be tried in front of the jurors. The danger is that the jurors will be influenced by the talking heads and by the media coverage and that tactical decisions will be made by lawyers and by judges based on the media focus on the case. And that can be a great danger.

The media focus can also be a protection. It means that everybody is watching the judiciary, and the judiciary has to be more accountable -- not necessarily accountable to the general public for the results that are achieved, but at least in terms of honesty and lack of corruptibility. So the legacy is decidedly a mixed one. …

Why was the country so drawn to this particular case?

The case was all-consuming. There were the trials; there were the meta-trials; there were the para-trials; there were the analyses of the trials. Everybody was consumed. On the day the verdict came down, the Supreme Court justices had notes passed to them. People lost days, hours of work. This was the most watched event in the history of television. And why? Why? Why was it so consuming? I could never understand that. To me it was just another murder case. I've had many in my career. This was not the most interesting; it was not the most important. And yet the public was just consumed with this case. ...

… One of the interesting statistics is that people who watched the case every day on television were less surprised at the verdict than the people who got their news about it secondhand, from newspapers and from brief television accounts, because the secondhand accounts clearly had him undoubtedly guilty, whereas watching the trial itself made you aware that there were doubts in this case. …

Peter Arenella

Peter Arenella, law professor at UCLA.

Peter Arenella

Read the full interview »

… How did the media discuss the role of race in the trial?

It's unfortunate when the media, instead of educating the public about a very complicated issue, simply repeats the public's own conventional wisdom and ignorance. What the media did in the O.J. Simpson case is it simply reflected back onto the white majority, what the white majority already believed. Public opinion polls made it quite clear that most white Americans believed Simpson was obviously guilty before the trial ever started. Most white Americans feared that the defense would do something unethical and use racism to get a black jury -- a predominantly African American jury -- to acquit an obviously guilty defendant. That was the frame of public discourse before the trial ever started. Everything was fit into that frame in terms of how the media covered the trial. …

What impact did the media have on the trial?

It's impossible to separate the media from the O.J. Simpson trial because of the constant feedback loop between the media coverage of the trial and the trial's daily proceedings. I mean, we had many examples in which Judge [Lance] Ito, during the trial, would do things that a trial judge would never do, simply because he was aware that the public was watching. He would let defense lawyers ramble on far longer than the normal trial judge would because he didn't want to create the appearance of cutting them off inappropriately to the American viewing public. So we had constant examples of how the media interacted with the trial day by day. The public's perception of how race was playing into this trial had an extraordinary impact on the trial. ...

Ten years later, has anything changed?

… I think that the media's role in how it covers the criminal justice system has taken a turn for the worse, because we've really gotten to a point in this country where we see criminal trials as forms of mass entertainment. It's as if every next high-profile trial is the next Roman circus, and let's all watch and be entertained by it. So we've disconnected from the reality of what these criminal trials are supposed to be about, and instead we convert them into theaters of entertainment. We even now have actors repeating the trial the day of so that people can get more entertainment from it.

Trials aren't supposed to be entertainment for the masses. They're supposed to be serious public processes in which juries are asked to do a very difficult job. And instead of respecting the job that jurors do, we discount it; we discredit it. We in the public act as the 13th juror when we're not in a position to know what the jurors know, to see what the jurors saw, and we feel entitled to express our opinions about guilt or innocence based on what I don't know, apart from media reports of what goes on.

… [Author and media critic] Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, and a fundamental thesis of this book is how television has just transformed our culture, mostly for the worse. And I have to say that my experience as a legal pundit working for ABC News certainly confirmed that thesis. When I look at what happened after the Simpson trial, when I look at how [prosecuting attorney] Marcia Clark became a reporter for Entertainment Tonight and [prosecuting attorney] Christopher Darden started to write mystery novels, and the blurring of the line between legal actors and people who are working in our entertainment media world, it just shows you how much that trial has transformed our culture in a variety of significant, and I think negative, ways.

Criminal trials become forums for mass entertainment, and high-profile actors in these criminal trials then go on to have careers in the media, even if they have no competence, no special expertise. It really doesn't matter, because they're [now] public figures, and the viewing audience has gotten to know them and sees them as friendly, accessible people. So regardless of their expertise, they move on to this different world.

But it happens in the media coverage itself, where you had The New York Times trying to keep up with the [National] Enquirer in terms of scoops about what a potential witness might say. So the line between professional, competent coverage and what's happening in the courtroom versus the desire to make a reputation as an aggressive media scoop about what might happen in the future got completely blurred. Lawyers began acting like entertainers. Legal pundits began to make predictions about how the jury might vote, ultimately, at the end of the trial -- something that wasn't appropriate or within their expertise. They're not soothsayers. They should be commenting simply on the legal machineries in a way that makes the system accessible to the viewing public. But instead, they became themselves entertainers.

All of it confirms Postman's thesis, which is that television converts everything it shows into a form of basic entertainment, which is fine if what television is covering is itself supposed to be entertainment. But it's not fine if what television is covering is supposed to have an important, separate, valuable function for our community. ...

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posted oct. 4, 2005

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