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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Anniversary of TV's Ugly Obsession

June 09, 1995|HOWARD ROSENBERG

In June, 1994, Los Angeles media were obsessed with O.J. Simpson. In June, 1995, Los Angeles media are obsessed with O.J. Simpson.

oh .

As a TV reporter mused recently about Monday's first anniversary of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, the best thing to emerge from this case may be the Dancing Itos, the troupe of bearded Judge Lance Ito clones whose stunningly choreographed musical numbers epitomize the aggressive late-night lunacy that has drawn NBC's Jay Leno within lethal striking range of CBS' David Letterman.

The frolicking Itos really outdid themselves recently as background dancers (this time wearing Hasidic hats) for an inspired version of "Fiddler on the Roof," featuring a look-alike as Simpson defender Robert Shapiro singing, "If O.J. were a poor man . . . ."

Always topical, the Dancing Itos were scheduled to appear on Thursday night's Leno show as the chorus line for a "Shapiro" adaptation of "New York, New York." Substitute lyrics: "Mistrial, mistrial."

Just as Leno's robed rogues are neither judges nor real dancers, the Simpson double-homicide case is in no way a primer on society, even though some in the media speciously argue otherwise to justify their year of relentless panoramic coverage. A mirror of spousal abuse and race relations in the United States? Nonsense.

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Has coverage of this gory tragedy transfused us with deep knowledge? Are we any smarter about ourselves and our neighbors now than we were before all of this began? On the contrary, the case, to say nothing of the hot-lit Simpson trial with its severely depleted, agonizingly sequestered jury, is a three-headed freak from which little of value can be learned. If anything, it's a diversionary side road. Sheer commerce, not sociology, drives the reporting out there on the TV midway.

What the Year of Simpson does offer--with much more, obviously, to come--is a nasty snapshot of U.S. media, especially newscasting in the mid-1990s, an era in which Brentwood has outranked Bosnia in too many newsrooms.

There have been weeks this year, for example, when NBC's "Nightly News" led every other night with the Simpson trial, if only to alert America that nothing newsworthy had happened in the courtroom, while ending each of those programs with a summary of what didn't happen. And addicted CNN, inhaling its heady Simpson ratings like a hophead snorting coke, plunged nose first into this case from the start. As a 24-hour news network, at least it has time for other stories.

Is it just possible, though, as a thoughtful observer suggested recently, that the Simpson case will become a ratings litmus test for future stories, that the hunger level has been irrevocably raised, that the standard of O.J. must now be met and salacious appetites fed to merit serious coverage? Under this scenario, important stories without such muscular ratings legs may get downplayed even more than they have in the past.

More than mere legs, almost from its outset this story had wheels, about a dozen sets of them, as a near monolith of TV channels transmitted global live pictures of a fleet of police cars pursuing fugitive Simpson in a white Ford Bronco on Los Angeles freeways. The low-speed chase looked like the start of the Indianapolis 500, with Simpson and his pal, A.C. Cowlings, just ahead in the pace car.

The media's fast lane to Rockingham and Gretna Green Way in 1994-95 included greasy pit stops with William Kennedy Smith, Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, John and Lorena Bobbitt, the Menendez brothers and Michael Jackson. These were primers, the prep course culminating in Simpson.

The story that has produced a cottage industry of camera-ready lawyers and boosted CNN and Court TV, while ironically energizing opposition to TV cameras inside courtrooms, also has nourished the nation's paranoia about violent crime at a time when FBI figures show a decrease in violent crime for the last two years.

And much of the public, while decrying violence in the media, lapped it up.

The call of Simpson proved irresistible.

The so-called honorable mainstream press and the so-called disreputable tabloids arrived side by side at these big shows of shows in Brentwood and at the Criminal Courts Building. And side by side they have remained, in effect, this Kato-izing union of interests giving the once-disdained, anything-goes media muckers an undeserved patina of legitimacy that may endure indefinitely.

The possibility of a mistrial has intensified bitterness and cynicism about our legal system and its jury process. When it comes to news gathering, though, the case's primary legacy indeed may be this intermarriage of media, whereby journalism's snide and journalism's snooty have for months toiled shoulder to shoulder in grubby pursuit of the same story, one that would have been widely reported in past times, but hardly to the extent that it is getting covered today.

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