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Ringmasters Keep Tight Rein on News Circus : Media: Coverage is immediate, reflects the emotional relief and generally goes smoothly. By noon, the stations are back to normal broadcasting.

April 18, 1993|RICK DU BROW | TIMES TELEVISION WRITER

The stage was set for a television news circus. At 7 a.m. Saturday, stations and viewers were primed for the story that had Los Angeles as tight as a knot--the verdicts in the Rodney G. King federal civil rights trial.

But only minutes later, the TV story was all but over and the possibility of a renewal of the riots that followed king's the state trial last year seemed remote as two policemen were convicted and two were acquitted in the infamous, videotaped 1991 beating of King.

By noon, there was baseball on KCBS Channel 2 and basketball on KNBC Channel 4.

City officials expressed hope on TV that--despite criticism from those who felt there should have been four convictions--the relative calm would continue after the mobilization of police and military troops ends.

Late in the morning, Police Chief Willie L. Williams, who has been a forceful presence while reassuring the public in recent TV appearances, was asked at a news conference what people should do for the rest of the weekend.

"Go about their daily lives and enjoy it," he said.

As the guilty verdicts for Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officer Laurence M. Powell were announced at the downtown federal courthouse, TV captured the cheers and song that erupted at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Among those at the church, watching the verdicts on TV, was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who helped lead the gathering in song. KNBC and KTLA Channel 5 caught the moment as a minister said emotionally: "Lord, come and bless our people right now."

"It was a good verdict," said Jackson, who, like other African-American leaders and personalities, has been using TV steadily in past days to preach against violence regardless of what the verdicts might be.

But reflecting the mixed emotions of other blacks, he added pointedly on the home screen that "the absence of a riot is not the presence of justice." He again called on President Clinton to develop a broad urban program.

On CNN and other stations, Clinton was seen in a Pittsburgh speech in which he addressed the King verdicts, saying their "lasting legacy" should be the willingness of Americans to respect others' differences.

After the verdicts, KNBC's David Garcia spoke to a satisfied group at the African-American Unity Center. One of those present, Danny Bakewell of the Brotherhood Crusade, said the outcome was "sort of a pay-back" for people who had been beaten on the street without a camera present.

But King's lawyer, Milton Grimes, told KTLA that he and his client were only "half-satisfied"--they had wanted all four defendants convicted.

The worldwide CNN network aired half an hour of coverage of the verdicts from 7 to 7:30 a.m., also cutting to First AME Church, near downtown.

But KCOP's often-detailed coverage had a messy side as it sometimes, startlingly, was alternated with infomercials. After a report on the verdicts, KCOP was the first major VHF station to drop its coverage, returning to an infomercial. About 10 a.m., it also cut away from the news.

On KCAL Channel 9, newsman David Goldstein's voice when he reported the first verdicts had a real sense of surprised excitement that many viewers probably shared. Meanwhile, a KCAL reporter sent to the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues--one of the spots where last year's trouble began--said the media outnumbered local residents.

KTTV was among the stations checking reaction in Watts. And its reporter, Christina Gonzalez, while finding some outrage because there were not four convictions, said there was no talk of violence and people were heading for breakfast.

On Spanish-language TV, KVEA Channel 52 provided smooth coverage. At one point, reporter Ricardo Brown noted from a helicopter: "Los Angeles looks totally normal and tranquil."

But the city's other major Spanish-language TV station, KMEX Channel 34, had extensive technical difficulties, sometimes leading to awkward and erroneous coverage, including reports, later corrected and clarified, that all four defendants were found guilty on some counts.

On radio, KJLH-FM (102.3), a black-owned, urban-oriented outlet that recently won a Peabody broadcasting award for its coverage of last year's riots, devoted itself to in-depth coverage and discussion of the verdicts. Said station General Manager Karen Slade: "Even if this is partial victory, it is a victory because we have stopped erosion of our civil rights."

All-sports station KMPC-AM (710) diverted from its format to carry verdict coverage from the NBC radio network and take calls on the King case. KPWR-FM (105.9), which was among stations taking some calls on the verdicts, played En Vogue's "Free Your Mind." KROQ-FM (106.7) played Elvis Costello's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding."

The early radio reports sent reassuring signals to the city. "Peace in the streets," said an announcer on KFWB-AM (980). "Calm and quiet," noted KFI-AM (640) from Koreatown.

But former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates--a lightning rod of controversy in last year's riots and now a KFI talk show host--asked in a discussion on the station: "What about that other jury? Justice was not done?"

After last year's verdicts, public officials popped off angrily on TV, perhaps helping to inflame the situation. This time, it was kid gloves on the home screen as the city hoped that the peace of the moment would last and mark a turning point in the history of Los Angeles.

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Greg Krikorian, Judith Michaelson, Claudia Puig and special correspondents Steven Herbert, Steve Hochman and Steve Weinstein.

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