YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL : Badgering the Press Is a Subtle Effort to Influence Simpson Coverage

August 29, 1995|BILL BOYARSKY

In a speech to a black journalists convention, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. said the media, which are pretty much run by whites, tilt toward the prosecution in the O.J. Simpson trial.

As quoted by reporter Peter Nicholas of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and confirmed by two of my colleagues who were there, Simpson's chief lawyer told the National Assn. of Black Journalists on Aug. 19:

"I am familiar with the media's characterization of who the victims are in this case. Any person would be led to believe that the only victims in this case are the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. How often is it that Mr. Simpson's family is portrayed in a sympathetic light, despite all the hardships they suffer and continue to suffer?"

Cochran, Nicholas reported, denounced "sound bites that are calculated to sell the guilt of Mr. Simpson" and the "insincerity" of the defense team.


Cochran's criticism of the mainstream press came to mind Monday when I detected a certain hostility toward non-African American reporters at a press conference by black ministers and other community leaders demanding a federal and state investigation of the Fuhrman tapes.

When one of the speakers warned of the possibility of post-Simpson trial violence, a non-African American reporter asked if he was saying Simpson should go free--innocent or guilty--to preserve peace. A woman on the rostrum bristled at the suggestion. "You shouldn't even be here," she told the reporter.

And Danny Bakewell, head of the Brotherhood Crusade, a large black community and social service organization, complained of the lack of black reporters at the press conference. Actually, there were three. But Bakewell told me afterward that his point was there were few African American reporters in the mainstream press. The press, he said, "is as racist as the rest of society."

It's true that the history of the press contains as much racism as other American institutions.

When I started out as a reporter in the '50s, my paper, the Oakland Tribune, wouldn't hire blacks, Latinos or Asians as reporters--a practice followed by most of the nation's newspapers. "What, send a black man to Piedmont?" our assistant managing editor shouted when a few reporters asked him to hire a black reporter. Piedmont was where Oakland's elite, including the publisher, lived.

Not only wouldn't the paper hire blacks, it wouldn't write about them even though Oakland was a center of black culture.

This mind-set, common to newspapers of that era, has slowly changed over the years, although the media continue to be racked with external criticism and internal debate about coverage of minority communities. Black, Latino, Asian and white reporters and editors at The Times have gone through many such debates over our coverage of the riots and minority community news.

But analyzing the news media wasn't Johnnie Cochran's only goal when he spoke to the National Assn. of Black Journalists. As columnist Elmer Smith, an African American, wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News, "His trip to Philadelphia, like most of the interviews, photo ops and, yes, leaks that the defense team has orchestrated are designed to plant seeds that may not take root until the RETRIAL OF THE CENTURY."

To do this at the convention, Cochran engaged in a time-honored technique pioneered by political campaign managers, and lately adopted by trial lawyers, known as banging the press.


To properly bang the press, you loudly and publicly accuse a reporter--or a group of reporters--of being prejudiced against your candidate or client. The banger's goal is to worry the targeted journalists about being biased so they will lean over the other way, either now or in the future.

But the technique doesn't always work, as another incident at the National Assn. of Black Journalists meeting showed.

The organization's board had been under heavy pressure by community activists and journalists within the group to adopt a resolution calling for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Philadelphia radio reporter who had been sentenced to death for killing a white police officer. Abu-Jamal was once president of the Philadelphia Assn. of Black Journalists.

The idea here was not only to force the board to support a new trial but to shape the way the case is viewed by the organization's members, who come from news outlets across the country.

When the board declined to act immediately, Times reporter Andrea Ford, then a board member, said critics faxed her that she was an Uncle Tom and should be ashamed to be black. "It was very hurtful to be attacked like that, to pick up publications and see the NABJ vilified," she said.

When the convention opened in Philadelphia, where Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death, the board was under even more pressure to come out for a new trial. But despite protests at the convention hotel, the board voted against the new trial resolution 15-1, calling instead for a full judicial review of the case. A general meeting of the group narrowly supported the board.

To do otherwise, Ford said, would compromise the integrity of NABJ members.

Cochran's press banging in the Simpson case isn't exactly comparable. Cochran is more subtle, more sophisticated. His timing shows that. He made his statement just as the defense was moving into the crucial part of its case.

But his goal is the same: to influence the message the public is getting about the O.J. Simpson case.

Los Angeles Times Articles