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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

Print Journalists Must Keep Fingers on Their Keyboards and Eyes Glued to the Tube

November 06, 1994|BILL BOYARSKY

Some of my fellow print reporters want to keep the television cameras out of the O.J. Simpson trial.

Their reasoning goes like this: We're serious. TV people are superficial. We're considerate. They're intrusive. We're smart. They're dumb.

So why, they wonder, is a paper such as the Los Angeles Times joining with its electronic rivals Monday to persuade Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito to open the Simpson courtroom to the cameras?

Part of it is that we're all part of the brotherhood and sisterhood of journalists, pledged to fight for the 1st Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press. An attack against one is an attack on all.

But there's another reason. We in print need TV. It would be hard to cover the Simpson trial, or many other big stories, without it.

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This has certainly been true with the Southland's wave of man-made and natural disasters.

Everyone figured there would be trouble after the Simi Valley jury acquitted the police officers accused of beating Rodney G. King, but nobody thought it would be as bad as it was.

Print reporters were dispatched to African American neighborhoods on the theory that this is where racial tensions would explode. But the terrible scope of the disaster was only clear from the air, where TV helicopters, armed with cameras, recorded the fires that extended over wide areas of L.A.

The unrest was unfolding so frighteningly fast that television became the primary tool for the newspaper in figuring out where reporters and photographers should be deployed.

When I sat down late that afternoon to write a column on the verdicts in Simi Valley, my television set was on. Things looked tense, even dangerous, when I started. While writing, I watched the beating of trucker Reginald O. Denny at Florence and Normandie avenues. I saw fires break out, first a few and then more. The situation continued to deteriorate as my editor read my story, changing it to reflect the spreading mayhem.

This is just the experience of one person. Multiply it many times, in newspaper offices here and elsewhere, and you can see the impact of television on editors and reporters in the print business. The same was true with the earthquake and when fast-moving brush fires scorched the region last fall. In each case, newspapers were greatly helped by television pictures.

During the Simpson trial, television will be especially important to the printed press. That point was made by Steven Brill, president of Court TV, the 24-hours-a-day, seven-day-a-week cable network, which provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of many trials. Court TV would operate the cameras inside the courtroom, acting as a pool, supplying pictures to networks and stations.

In a statement to the court opposing a TV ban, Brill said: "Because only 27 seats have been reserved inside the courtroom for the press, the pool camera has facilitated an unimpeded flow of information to those reporters not able to attend court proceedings on any given day, who have watched the proceedings from the media center on the 12th floor of the courthouse."

Although some people may resent the change from the old days when newspaper and radio people were the world's only eyes and ears, television has actually become an ally for those of us laboring in the world of ink. For the drama and immediacy of television coverage whet the public's appetite for even more information. And newspapers are best equipped to go into depth, exploring why those events happened.

That is also true of the Simpson case. For me, without television, it would be difficult to write this column on the trial because we have only one courtroom pass and it goes to the reporter who covers the case day in and day out.

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Although all of this is important to how we cover the story, it's a small part of what will be debated in Judge Ito's court Monday. There, the issue will really be about the degree to which the public will be able to see for itself the administration of criminal justice.

Seeing this system work is especially important to L.A., where so much social tension is caused by minority residents' suspicion of law enforcement and the courts.

Print, television and radio are part of the process. "To work effectively," former Chief Justice Warren Burger of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in 1980, "it is important that society's criminal process satisfy the appearance of justice . . . and the appearance of justice can best be provided by allowing people to observe it."

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