Police, prosecutors and sources close to them struck first in the media wars that immediately enveloped the O.J. Simpson murder case. Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Simpson's lead attorney, would later charge that the publication and broadcast of stories about evidence purporting to link the former football star to the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman amounted to "orchestrated leaks" designed to prejudice the public and potential jurors against Simpson.
Simpson's defense team was also outraged by the release, less than two weeks after the murders, of tapes of Nicole Brown Simpson's emergency calls to 911. On those tapes--which were broadcast on radio and television and quoted in newspapers--a man identified as Simpson could be heard screaming obscenities after kicking in the door of his ex-wife's home.
Stryker McGuire, West Coast editor for Newsweek, said the early leaks--which helped shape public perceptions and legal strategy within days of the murders--were a clear indication that police and prosectors realized how difficult it could be to convict a defendant as popular as Simpson.
But it didn't take long for Simpson's defense team to strike back.
A "massive defense publicity machine [began] . . . generating material . . . in Simpson's favor" to counter these leaks very early, said Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor who was an expert analyst on the trial for ABC News and KTLA Channel 5 and a daily contributor to the Los Angeles Times' "Legal Pad" analysis of the case.
Then, more than two months before the start of jury selection in the Simpson case, and six months before jury sequestration, several news organizations picked up stories originally reported by the New Yorker and Newsweek magazines that said the defense intended to make an issue of the racist attitudes of Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman.
The spinning began in earnest.
For the next year-plus, using news conferences, leaks and courtroom tactics, the defense was "masterful, brilliant at manipulation" of the media and the jury, said Greg Jarrett, who helped anchor Court TV's coverage of the trial and who, like everyone else quoted in this story, was interviewed in the weeks and months before the jury acquitted Simpson last Tuesday. (By design, this story was essentially written before the jury verdict as well.)
"We were as much a tool and a conduit for each side as we were an investigating arm of our own individual organizations," said Jim Moret, who anchored CNN's trial coverage.
The spinning in the Simpson case became so egregious that the California Supreme Court recently enacted a rule restricting the comments that attorneys in any case can make outside the courtroom. The rule took effect two days before Simpson was acquitted.
The Simpson case has implications for the criminal justice system and for the future of race relations in this country that are likely to be debated for some time. But from beginning to end, the news media--the newspaper and television reporters, the magazine writers and the book authors--were often as central to the case as were the attorneys and investigators on both sides. Indeed, Judge Cecil Mills, the supervising judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, took the extraordinary step of stripping the grand jury of its authority in the Simpson case after the media gave widespread attention to the 911 tapes.
The media's involvement in the Simpson case, as both players and chroniclers, as pursuers of news and as pawns of the legal spinmeisters, guarantees that their performance will also be a subject of comment and controversy for years to come.
Were people fascinated by the Simpson case because of its many resonant chords--race, celebrity, wealth, violence--or because the media pandered to their basest instincts by filling their waking hours with story after story after story, until they were either hooked or too numb to resist--or both? Have the mainstream, (largely) responsible media become indistinguishable from the supermarket and television tabloids? Could early reporting on the case have jeopardized Simpson's right to a fair trial? Did the predominantly white news media inaccurately portray African American attitudes toward Simpson? Did the widespread assumption of Simpson's guilt among predominantly white reporters, editors and television news directors influence coverage? Did the cameras in the courtroom needlessly prolong the trial?
One thing is already clear: However unwittingly at times, the media played a pivotal role in this most bizarre drama.