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TELEVISION : We're All in This Muck Together


In USA Today recently, Larry King accused yours truly of self-servingly following a double standard by slamming excessive coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial while frequently writing about the trial myself.

That's absolutely ridiculous. It just angers me beyond words. The nerve. Believe me, I have more on my mind than this trial.

Now, on to today's column: More notes from a courtaholic.

* PEN PALS: In reply to readers who have asked me to be their Simpson trial pen pal, I respectfully decline. I'm still catching up on my "Twin Peaks" correspondence.

* PRIORITIES: Neither ABC nor CBS aired President Clinton's Friday morning press conference live. This was the day after derailment of the proposed balanced-budget amendment that was the heart of the Republican legislative program.

Clinton's meeting with the press was wide-ranging. CNN and NBC did cover it live, but KNBC-TV Channel 4 rejected its parent network's feed in favor of live coverage of Rosa Lopez's interrogation by Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Darden in the Simpson trial, which was also aired by KCBS-TV Channel 2, KCAL-TV Channel 9, KTTV-TV Channel 11 and KTLA-TV Channel 5. CNN itself resumed its live trial coverage after airing the President.

As for that press conference, the nation probably would have been better served had Clinton been questioned by Darden instead of the White House press corps.

* THE WINNAHHHHHH!: Trial watchers who tune into Channel 5's extended live coverage (which tops the ratings) are hearing some first-rate anchoring from Marta Waller and especially astute commentary and analysis from UCLA law professor Peter Arenella and attorney Al DeBlanq. No histrionics here, just lots of smart talk and measured dissection, even when delayed starts and long trial stoppages require them to stretch or fill.

* THE WINNAHHHHHH II!: Speaking of a huge stretch, last week's spectacle of the century was Sam Donaldson and Barbara Walters capping Thursday's "Day One" on ABC with an embarrassingly gratuitous point-counterpoint on the Simpson trial and lead prosecutor Marcia Clark's child custody woes. They argued, discovered they agreed, then argued anyway. It wasn't pretty.

* NARROWED GAPS: Either journalism's mainstream is widening to encompass the oily fringes of the business, or vice versa. Take your pick.

The mantle of legitimacy is broadening. Just the other day, guests on the credible discussion series "CNN & Company" included a reporter from that notorious tabloid, the Globe. And "Hard Copy" has also been represented on the show.

Meanwhile, ABC's "Good Morning America" joined the pack Friday by doing its own story on Clark's custody problems, accelerated by her estranged husband's campaign to have their two sons live with him on the grounds that her Simpson work schedule keeps her away from home.

So what went in at the end of Bill Ritter's otherwise worthy report on Clark? Junk from tabloids about her earlier private life and about the private lives of Darden and Simpson's lead attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.

What was the relevance? Was ABC News saying that Clark's custody war, like those stories, was the stuff of tabloids and yet another example of how the Simpson case has permeated the private lives of everyone it touches? If so, why was "Good Morning America" contributing to the carnival? If the Clark story was legitimate news, however, then why gratuitously throw in the tabloid muck?

Muck and mainstream increasingly intersect on the Simpson beat, desensitizing the public and journalists themselves to this ugly, unnatural hybrid.

* MR. THOUGHTFUL: When it comes to sage, sensitive commentary on the Simpson trial, no one tops that rogue of radio, Howard Stern: "All the lawyers in the O.J. case now are almost in jail."

Although Stern's brain and mouth at times appear only distantly related, he does have his moments. That was Stern on Friday, again thinking deeply about the trial's subtle nuances that most of us are not perceptive enough to notice: "Judge Ito had to make the half-day session so . . . the lawyers can go be defendants in other cases." Naturally, he'd also made a careful study of Lopez: "She had heels on, and she's really foxing herself up."

Stern had recorded the symphonic music that CNN uses to introduce and cut away from its live trial coverage as a way of conveying importance and high drama. He played the theme, accompanied by his own deeply moving lyrics:

"It's the Johnnie Cochran trial, Johnnie Cochran, Cochran, Cochran.

Marcia Clark has problems, too."

He promised to return today with his own pompous musical opening. Stern (in a stentorian voice): "We're back to the Howard Stern Show . . . the most important show of the century . . . important music."

* YOU CAN CALL ME AL: It's no wonder that Simpson is widely known simply as O.J., a catchy, humanizing moniker that has been with him through most of his life.

But what is this "Rosa" business, with so many people on TV offhandedly referring to Salvadoran housekeeper Rosa Lopez by her given name, instead of by Lopez or Ms. Lopez. In her case, it's a demeaning practice that diminishes and infantilizes her. The same goes for repeated use of "Sylvia" in reference to Sylvia Guerra, the Guatemalan housekeeper who the prosecution has implied will dispute a portion of Lopez's testimony.

On one hand, it's nice to see a Latina finally get some extended time on TV, where south of the border often means south of Ventura Boulevard.

Yet, as if ordered by Central Casting, who does Lopez the TV star turn out to be? Someone widely seen as a member of a subservient underclass, someone matching easy stereotypes, someone degraded not only by prosecutors--that's their job--but also by some members of the media. That isn't their job.

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