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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL : Relying on a Sound Bite From Distrusted Media

March 16, 1995|BILL BOYARSKY

Can't live with us, can't live without us.

That's the way the judge and the lawyers regard the media covering the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

From the beginning, Judge Lance A. Ito and the prosecution and defense attorneys have blasted print and broadcast journalists for alleged excesses in their coverage and for running leaked stories that, ironically, were provided by members of the competing legal team.

Chief defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. treats the press as pals, ever genial and obliging as he leaves the courthouse surrounded by camera crews and reporters. But when he received an award from African American community leaders at Will Rogers Park in Watts earlier this year, he decried "those who are trying to convict O.J. Simpson in the press." And in a speech to a magazine publishers' conference in Newport Beach last August, Cochran said media attention is "debilitating to our ability to get a fair trial."

Judge Ito views the press with fascination and disdain. Although a devoted newspaper reader and television news watcher, Ito is suspicious of the motives and abilities of the people who bring it to him. His heaping scorn on the press was a feature of the early stages of the trial, although the authority of his attack was weakened when he did a long interview with Tritia Toyota on KCBS-TV.

Then there's the district attorney's office. When Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark's marital custody battles hit the press, her boss, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, criticized the media for their coverage of the situation. "You place Marcia and the prosecutors in just a horrible situation," Garcetti said. "It's not fair."

But in court Wednesday, Clark, believe it or not, based an argument on a few seconds of quotes from a television news show.

*

The quotes came from one of the peripheral characters in the Simpson case, a Marine named Maximo Cordoba, who served in a South Bay recruiting office where Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman used to hang out.

Defense attorney F. Lee Bailey said in court Monday that Cordoba will testify that Fuhrman called him a "nigger" and "boy."

This is contrary to what Cordoba told The Times in a Sept. 21 interview when he said, "At no time when Mark was with me or in our office did he speak in any racist manner about blacks or anyone." It was also contrary to Cordoba's statements to prosecution investigators, by Clark's account.

In court Tuesday, Bailey, an ex-Marine, stuck by his version. In firm, unhesitating tones, he told Ito: "I have spoken on the phone personally, Marine to Marine. I haven't the slightest doubt that he'll march up to that witness stand and tell the world what Fuhrman called him. . . ."

Clark pounced. While the D.A.'s office hadn't been able to reach Cordoba to personally reconcile the various stories, she offered something else--a tape of Tuesday night's "Dateline NBC," where anchor Stone Phillips interviewed Cordoba. On the tape, Cordoba said, "I have not talked to F. Lee Bailey."

It became a hairsplitting dispute. I could give you a blow-by-blow account but it would be too boring. And I'll bet that the fate of O.J. Simpson will not be decided by the testimony of Max Cordoba.

What was interesting was Clark's attitude. Although the D.A.'s office is no friend of the press, she was remarkably anxious to rely in court on something from the scorned media.

Prof. Joe Saltzman, who teaches broadcasting at the USC Journalism School, was also interested as he watched the events unfold on television.

"The lawyers are lazy," Saltzman said. "There is no reason why they should be talking about what's on television. They should interview the witnesses. . . . Do what lawyers have done for centuries in the courtroom instead of worrying what 'Hard Copy' and 'Dateline' and the National Enquirer are saying."

*

Clark was using part of an interview, a snippet, a sound bite, which is all that appeared on the show.

It's an accepted practice for journalists to leave most of an interview on the cutting-room floor, using only the most newsworthy portions.

"Nobody wants to sit there and hear an hour interview with somebody they don't know anything about," said Saltzman. "Even newspaper interviews are edited for space and content. Journalists are supposed to go through all the muck, all the documents, all the words and come up with nuggets. I don't have time to listen to this Marine for an hour. I have to go to work."

But what is good journalism is not usually good evidence in court. Even the best journalism generally gives you excerpts. The excerpts in magazine shows such as "Dateline NBC" tend to be short and punchy.

To prove a case in court, you need documents and words. Clark usually is a stickler for this, insisting that the defense hand over volumes of information. But when it suited her purpose Wednesday, a sound bite was good enough.

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