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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

Why Not Ban Leno's Jokes?

October 21, 1994|BILL BOYARSKY

As I watched KABC-TV artist Mona S. Edwards sketch the O.J. Simpson trial from her seat three floors above the courtroom, I saw the silliness of Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito's order banning the press from the current phase of questioning prospective jurors.

At the exact moment Ito was booting the reporters into the hallway, Edwards was drawing her conception of the scene inside the courtroom, with the lawyers, the judge and the famous defendant all at their customary posts.

Ito had previously banned cameras from jury selection, creating a need for Edwards' talents. With no cameras in the court, reporters have been giving her descriptions of what the participants are wearing. "The judge is always wearing the same thing, the attorneys are always standing in the same position," said Edwards, who is also a fashion artist. From the descriptions and her memory of televised courtroom scenes, Edwards sketches a picture that looks as though it was done inside the courtroom.

Working furiously, Edwards finished a picture as the reporters were leaving the courtroom and handed it to a producer. As usual, it was run on Channel 7 clearly labeled "artist's conception."

Perhaps the judge thinks kicking out the press will produce a news blackout. But he doesn't understand the process of news gathering.

KABC's initiative will be matched by others as the media struggle to learn what's happening behind closed doors in the nation's hottest trial. Reporters will use all their skills and contacts. Leakers will be happy to help them, trying to portray jury selection in terms favorable to their side.

The wildest of speculation will abound, with nobody except those inside the courtroom having any idea of the truth.

*

It was clear from the beginning that Thursday would be a bad day for the press.

The court reporter, explaining she was acting on Judge Ito's orders, refused to give the reporters promised transcripts of Wednesday morning's session, when Simpson had a conversation with the judge. In fact, she snatched away the one copy she had given out, apparently prior to Ito's order, from the hands of a Fox Channel 11 producer, declaring sternly: "You can't have this."

We went into the pressroom, which has a speaker connection to the courtroom, to listen to what we thought would be another tedious round of questioning jurors. Instead, a couple of jurors spoke up with complaints about the press.

One had gone into an elevator occupied by reporters and they had discussed the Simpson case even though she was wearing a juror's badge. "I had to say I was a juror so please be quiet," she told Ito. The second juror complained that two friends reported they had seen her picture on television, indicating some station had violated the ban against photographing jurors.

The judge seized on the disclosure, telling the juror to find out the station from her friends and call the court with the information.

Defense attorney Robert L. Shapiro was the first to ask that reporters be banned from the courtroom. Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark backed him all the way. So did Ito. In fact, it turned out the ban was Ito's idea. "The court invited the parties to make the motion," he disclosed.

No sooner had Ito signed off on the ban than the sound was cut off in our pressroom.

As it turned out, Judge Ito's ban was only partial, extending through the period when jurors are being asked whether they have been influenced by what's been written and broadcast about the case. When this period ends, a court spokeswoman said, the press will come back in.

*

None of this makes much sense.

Judge Ito said he was concerned about "cross-pollination of jurors by the media, accurate or otherwise."

The coverage of the case, he said, was pervasive. His research attorney has counted 27,000 newspaper and magazine articles nationwide since July. It's been on Tibet TV. Jay Leno and David Letterman joke about the case. It's on all the networks, every day.

"Why would a juror be concerned if David Letterman was telling jokes?" asked Kelli Sager, attorney for The Times and the Associated Press.

That's the point. The reporting inside the courtroom isn't polluting the atmosphere. Is the judge afraid the jurors will be intimidated by five reporters taking notes? Will they be influenced by the reporters's stories, which are straight accounts reflecting the tedium of voir dire proceedings? Does he actually think jurors will be inflamed by such reports?

Really, judge. The only thing worse than being banned from voir dire is having to sit through it.

The pollution is coming from the outside. From L.A.'s new literary light, Faye Resnick, author of a book smearing her alleged friend, Nicole Brown Simpson. From the supermarket tabloids. From the tabloid TV shows. From irresponsible magazines, locked in newsstand circulation wars.

Their reporting activities, all from outside the courtroom, are exempt from Ito's media ban.

If the judge followed the logic of his complaints, he'd ban Leno and Letterman. He'd get injunctions against every Sunset Strip comic who tells O.J. jokes. He'd have the Star, the National Enquirer and, on occasion, Newsweek, the New Yorker and Esquire, banned from the city.

He'd order the burning of Faye Resnick's book.

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