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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

'NewsHour' Chases the News, Not Simpson

October 26, 1994|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"More Simpson updates on the hour!" --KNBC-TV Channel 4 at 1 p.m. Monday. "Here's the latest!" --KCBS-TV Channel 2 at 2 p.m. Monday. So many lies to the detriment of the people, so much frustration, so much worry about a fair trial. Given all of the publicity being whipped up around the O.J. Simpson murder case, sequestration does have a certain appeal.

It shouldn't be difficult to find a possible site for it, an area near a college campus, perhaps, where these sequestered persons could remain cleansed and clear of mind, where they could walk, smell flowers, frolic, exercise, play volleyball and attend lectures and old Walt Disney movies, where transporting them to and from court would be convenient.

But enough about the media.

If only the First Amendment did not prohibit shutting away the many high-polluting, low-functioning Beavises and Butt-heads who have attached themselves to the Simpson case like leeches. These media types are deployed throughout television.

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A hypocritical "tsk tsk" quality permeates some of the reporting, with media perpetrators remarking, in effect, "How tragic that prospective jurors are being exposed to the relentlessly salacious coverage that we're relentlessly exposing them to."

When it comes to TV news, in fact, only one pristine pocket remains. It's "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," TV's only newscast suitable for viewing by potential Simpson jurors.

Memo to Judge Lance Ito, who has ordered potential Simpson jurors to avoid all media: "NewsHour" is safe, as close to being Simpson-free as TV news gets.

Monday's edition of the weeknight PBS program was typical: a news summary, a story about President Clinton's announcement of lower national deficit figures, another about a campaign controversy concerning possible plans to further trim the deficit, another about the Democratic Party's troubles in Tennessee, a lengthy interview with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, an essay on the movie "Quiz Show."

And once again, not one word about Simpson.

Seeing itself as an alternative to other national newscasts, "NewsHour" earns only a minuscule audience by commercial TV standards, hardly an incentive for favoring substance over sleaze.

Yet talk about heeding a different drummer. Media critic-come-lately Judge Ito should publicly give thanks for this newscast, which, amazingly, has virtually boycotted the double-homicide case that much of television has been chomping on with the frenzied fierceness of a pride of ravenous lions savagely tearing apart a poor wildebeest.

While other newscasts, and faux newscasts, have dwelt obsessively on the Simpson case--constructing banner headlines from every crease, nit, speck and pinprick of microscopic minutiae--"News-Hour" has focused specifically on it just once. And that fleeting blip was all the way back on June 20, when some of the newscast's regular contributors spent part of a Monday segment hashing over implications of the previous Friday's dramatic freeway pursuit and arrest of Simpson for the slashing murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman. On two other occasions, the PBS program briefly mentioned the case in wider stories on spousal abuse and the importance of DNA evidence in trials.

Which means?

Either "NewsHour" is (a) stuffily, snootily, highfalutinly out of touch . . . or (b) acutely in touch with its journalistic responsibility as a serious newscast to enlighten the public on issues beyond the titillating and sensational.

"NewsHour" executive producer Lester M. Crystal picks (b).

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The Simpson case "doesn't really fit in with what we do," Crystal said by phone from New York. "This is a program that deals with crime as a problem--not as a staple."

Yes, but we're constantly told by those operating from deep within the epicenter of the Simpson Zone that this case is not just any crime. Given the unprecedented sweep of the coverage, this undoubtedly qualifies as the murder case of the millennium, right? Larger even than the murders of Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King rolled into one? So significant that the major networks almost daily lavish chunks of their slender 22-minute evening newscasts on it, to say nothing of using their fleets of morning shows and newsmagazines to hot-pursue every aspect of the case?

Crystal: "Their priorities are out of whack."

He has some perspective, having spent 20 years with NBC, ultimately heading the network's news division in the late 1970s prior to his 1983 departure.

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