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THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Obsession: DID THE MEDIA OVERFEED A STARVING PUBLIC? : CHAPTER THREE: TABLOID TORNADO, MAINSTREAM MANIA : 'The Godzilla of tabloid stories.'

October 09, 1995|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

The audience for traditional news media--daily newspapers and network television news shows in particular--has been fragmenting and declining for several years as readers and viewers have turned in growing numbers to other sources for their information and entertainment--to the Internet, to MTV, to videos, to interactive cable TV, to specialty magazines and newsletters.

In an effort to solidify their remaining base, and to attract newer, younger, often less sophisticated viewers, newspaper and television executives have increasingly allowed the blurring of longstanding distinctions between "reputable" mainstream news organizations and the scandal- and sensation-mongering tabloids of the supermarket and broadcast variety.

Less than four years ago, when these lines first began to seriously blur, the mainstream media generally picked up stories like Bill Clinton's alleged love affair with Gennifer Flowers only after they were first reported by tabloids. But Flowers was only one of a series of tabloid stories that have slithered their way into the media mainstream in the past decade. Vide Erik and Lyle Menendez. Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. John and Lorena Bobbitt. Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco. William Kennedy Smith. Heidi Fleiss. Michael Jackson.

By the time Simpson case came along--"the Godzilla of tabloid stories," in the words of James Willwerth of Time magazine--journalists were ready to plunge into the fray, to try to be first rather than rushing frantically to be second after having waited in stately silence while the tabloids broke the stories. When the tabloids clasped the Simpson story to their heaving journalistic bosoms, the mainstream media suddenly found themselves panting alongside--and not always winning the race against competitors far more experienced on this tricky and often treacherous terrain.

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It was, after all, the supermarket Star and the syndicated television show "Hard Copy," not the Los Angeles Times or CBS News, that first reported the contents of O.J. Simpson's lengthy statement to police a few days after the murders.

"This is our turf," said Diane Dimond, who reported that story and several other exclusives for "Hard Copy." "We have sources in place, and they were activated the minute [the Simpson story broke]."

Tabloid reporters cultivate the bartenders and baby-sitters, the chambermaids and chauffeurs who are often privy to gossip and other newsworthy tidbits. Thus, the National Enquirer beat the Establishment media on several Simpson stories, and was praised for so doing by the New York Times.

"The Enquirer has probably shaped public perceptions of the case more than any other publication," David Margolick wrote last October in the New York Times. "In a story made for the tabloids, it stands head and shoulders above them all for aggressiveness and accuracy." The New York Times pointed out that the Enquirer had not published any of the "false reports" that were published and broadcast by many "respectable" news organizations in the first frantic weeks of the story.

Margolick was so impressed with the Enquirer's performance on the Simpson story that two months later he quoted an Enquirer story that said an unidentified jail guard had overheard O.J. Simpson exclaim "I did it!" to Rosie Grier, the former football player-turned minister.

As the Times subsequently reported, "Some journalistic critics say the Times breached its own ethical standards by repeating information from an unnamed source in a supermarket tabloid that sometimes pays people for information."

Margolick and his editors defended the reference to the Enquirer as necessary to explain that day's court proceedings about the admissibility of the guard's testimony. But the incident underscored, in a most ironic fashion, the degree to which the once-clear demarcation between the tabloids and the journalistic mainstream had been obscured.

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The Enquirer, which was the first publication to report the New Year's Day, 1989, fight between O.J. and Nicole Simpson, had up to 20 reporters assigned to the Simpson case at various times, and David Perel, general editor of the paper, said the Enquirer spent "a small fortune" looking--unsuccessfully--for possible suspects other than Simpson. Other tabloids, in print and on the air, also swarmed over the story and, like the Enquirer, produced exclusives of their own, the most recent being the Star's publication this week of photographs from the party at Simpson's house last Tuesday night celebrating his acquittal.

"When a tabloid does a good job and the mainstream media have to follow . . . people increasingly give them equal credibility," said LAPD Deputy Police Chief David Gascon, echoing the concerns of many in the mainstream media.

When Newsweek quotes one of Simpson's brothers as saying their father was gay, and says that Simpson was a womanizer who "indulged in drugs and casual sex," should readers be expected to look on the National Enquirer as "sensational?"

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