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TV Coverage Illuminates Without Sparks


The horrid nightmare of what happened will linger endlessly.

They were unruly, they were uncivilized, they were savage, they were barbaric, they were thoughtless. They were wild, out of control, stampeding across Los Angeles like animals driven by instinct. But that was last year.

On Saturday, the media stayed calm.

After the 1992 state trial of four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney G. King, TV crews hit the streets like a door-to-door sales force, blitzing the airwaves with potentially inflammatory interviews and other emotional live reports and anchor hotspeak that created more sparks than light.

Mindful of criticism it took for that behavior, however, TV news was measured and restrained in the aftermath of Saturday morning's dramatic announcement of verdicts in the federal trial of the same LAPD officers.

Of course, the climate was different, with Saturday's guilty verdicts against two of four King defendants apparently mollifying many who went berserk after last April's acquittals. Because most local newscasts never met a calm they couldn't whip into a storm, however, it was a relief that Saturday evidenced little of the media bombast that hot-wired so much of last year's coverage.

There appeared to be fewer live street-corner interviews, for example, and those that did air--with subjects from Koreatown to Lake View Terrace--were mostly thoughtful and sedate.

Not that some Latinos and African-Americans did not protest on camera about the two defendants found not guilty. But reporters egged on no one nor asked the kind of loaded questions that fire emotions.

Saturday was one of those extended television moments to remember, from the suspenseful drum roll leading to the verdicts to Jess Marlow's astute afternoon interview with an anonymous juror, which KNBC-TV Channel 4 aired by cutting into its network telecast of an NBA game.

Anyone tuning in KABC-TV Channel 7 at 7 a.m. expecting to see "A Pup Named Scooby Doo" was in for a big shock. By that time not only Channel 7, but all of the Scooby Doos of local news had usurped the airwaves, holding them at least until noon, with KTTV-TV Channel 11 hanging on until 12:30.

It's the goofy habit of those in TV news to impatiently speculate about an event--in this case the expected King verdicts--seconds before the event occurs. On Saturday, this foreplay massaged feelings of dread and excitement.

Channel 4's Paul Moyers: "All right, it's 7 o'clock. This is the moment."

Yes, the moment. Because U.S. District Judge John G. Davies had withdrawn his approval of live audio for the proceedings, TV reporters had to relay the verdicts by phone as they heard them.

As Channel 2's Bob Jimenez spoke, a printed text of his words appeared on screen. Channels 4 and 7 gave the verdicts even greater resonance by simultaneously showing the jubilant reactions of black leaders at the First AME Church to guilty verdicts for Stacey C. Koon and Laurence M. Powell. It was dejection that TV had captured inside the church just a year ago, when the verdicts were acquittals.

What followed Saturday was a parade of televised statements and press conferences by key trial figures and others. Watching Koon's attorney, Ira Salzman, pour out his own mesmerizing insights into the trial recalled the last scene of a mystery where the detective gathers everyone and reveals how the murderer carried out his plot.

Salzman at times was angry. But the morning's bitterest words came from former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates who, as lovable as ever, used his own press conference to attack Mayor Tom Bradley and his other critics.

With reporters and anchors having become an echo chamber of assurances to viewers that the city was calm, by midmorning the coverage was becoming as excessive as the pounding given King on March 3, 1991.

A small price for responsible journalism, perhaps. "Sometimes, when you hear the gospel you have to shout," crowed the Rev. Cecil L. (Chip) Murray, pastor of First AME Church, responding to the verdicts. So, too, on Saturday, was the gospel of TV something to cheer.

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