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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

Another Blot on Media's Record

October 15, 1994|BILL BOYARSKY

As the disembodied voices rose from the ninth-floor courtroom to our pressroom three floors above, it was clear that somebody down there didn't like us.

I tried not to take it personally. Except for an occasional burst of popularity, the news media, bearer of bad news, has never been a favorite American institution. I wasn't surprised that Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito, the lawyers and most of the prospective O.J. Simpson jurors they questioned seemed hostile to us reporters.

It was in line with a September CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in which people ranked journalists 12th in honesty and ethical standards--below, among others, pharmacists, the clergy, funeral directors and pollsters.

Even knowing that, it was unnerving to listen to the voices being piped into the pressroom as the judge and lawyers probed the jury panelists to determine the impact of the unrelenting media coverage of Simpson's arrest and subsequent trial for the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman.

Since summer, I'd been writing about how both sides had been trying to influence the pool of prospective jurors through manipulation of newspaper, television, radio and magazine coverage. Now, I was watching the actual impact--previously just theoretical--on the men and women who are being considered for the trial.

The answers and the questions were rich in skepticism of the press. The prospective jurors, if they were telling the truth, didn't have much faith in what they had read or seen.

*

The tone was established early in the session when Ito expressed his concern about the impact of press intrusion on the privacy of jurors. He told the prospective jurors he had protected them by making them anonymous, and he pledged "to take other steps" to assure their privacy.

An undertone of suspicion about the news media was evident in the dialogue between Ito and a 42-year-old Ladera Heights woman. Ito asked how she felt about the widely broadcast tape of the 911 call Nicole Simpson made to the Los Angeles Police Department when a man she identified as Simpson was trying to get into her home. "I don't think it was as bad as the media made it out to be," she said.

"Did you feel the media was trying to spin it out?" asked Ito.

"That's the way I feel about the media in general," she replied.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark expressed concern about the way the media has portrayed the victims. The prospective juror said all she knew of Nicole Simpson and Goldman came from various news reports, although she didn't say what impression she received from them. But the fact that the media had an impact seemed to offend Clark. "That's what the media has done," she said.

Ito asked another panelist about KNBC's erroneous report that a DNA test had indicated Nicole Simpson's blood was on a glove found at Simpson's Brentwood estate. When the woman said she'd seen the report, Ito asked, "Did you come across with the feeling that the news media is not always right in these things?"

"Yes," the woman said emphatically.

Another prospective juror, a retired engineer, was told by Ito, "This case is unlike anything I've ever seen before. Can you put aside the hoopla and give it fair consideration?"

Yes, said the man, echoing the words of a previous panelist who had said she could block news reports out of her mind. "I block many things out of my mind," she said. "I think I can. I will give it the best shot I can."

Ito made it clear that his assessment of how the jurors have reacted to the news coverage will be a major factor in his decision whether to grant the prosecution's request to sequester the jury--a move vigorously opposed by Simpson's attorneys.

His decision, he said, "depends on the amount of media coverage and the jury's resistance to it."

*

I don't know what public opinion surveys and scholarly studies will eventually show about the impact of news coverage on the Simpson case.

But from what transpired in the courtroom Friday, the attorneys' attempts to destroy each other through the news media have ended up with an entirely different result.

Weeks of sensational stories, of undisciplined tabloid coverage, have had a negative impact on all media. So has the uninterrupted debate, begun with Simpson's arrest, on whether the press has been responsible in its coverage. In all the debates--in universities, radio talk shows and television discussions--the critics have been loud and powerful, and the media forces on the defensive.

As a result, the worst damage has not been to the prosecution or the Simpson defense team, but to the already fragile reputation of the press.

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