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THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Obsession: DID THE MEDIA OVERFEED A STARVING PUBLIC? : CHAPTER FIVE: THE BEGINNING : 'I was told every day that I'd lead the news.'

October 09, 1995|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

John North and Harvey Levin are two of the most highly regarded local television reporters in Los Angeles. Both still cringe when they talk about the frenzy, the near-panic, that propelled virtually everyone's coverage in the early weeks of the Simpson case.

"The worst thing that's ever happened in my career," Levin said, "was I would come into the station at 9 in the morning and they [his executive producers at KCBS Channel 2] would say to me, 'You're leading every newscast' . . . before I had a story."

Levin said he was expected to go on the air live, several times a day, not simply to report the routine, official developments in the rapidly unfolding Simpson case but to "break" stories, to get stories before any other reporter did. "It was lunacy at the beginning," he said. "I think there was a general lack of quality control. . . . I was getting physically sick . . . putting in insane hours. . . . I would probably get my first beep at around 6-6:30 in the morning and I'd work past midnight every day."

North's pace was similarly frenetic, and his experience at KABC Channel 7 similarly unsettling. "I was told every day that I'd lead the news," North recalls. "There would be literally nothing happening and I'd do two or three stories a day. I'd have to go out and find someone who would say that something might happen the next day [so I'd have a story]."

Amid this stampede, errors were inevitable.

"Early on, we all made mistakes we shouldn't have made because it was so competitive, and we were rushing around so much, trying to beat each other, especially local television, trying to get the so-called 'exclusives,' " North said.

Levin has always been one of the more colorful and controversial journalists in Los Angeles television. He's an aggressive reporter who breaks important investigative stories, but--like many in local TV news--he can also succumb to hype and theatrics. On the Simpson story, Levin hyperventilated his way into a big mistake, what he now calls "an internal, mechanical, royal screw-up . . . the worst experience" he ever had.

On July 13, 1994, exactly one month after the discovery of the bodies of the two murder victims, Levin reported that prosecutor Marcia Clark had arrived at Simpson's home in the hours after the murder, before a judge had signed a search warrant for the property. Levin based his report on a time code that indicated a KCBS videotape of Clark's arrival had been filed from the scene at 10:28 on the day of the search; the search warrant hadn't been signed until 10:45 a.m.

But it turned out that the tape had been fed to the station from its satellite truck at 10:28 p.m. , well after Clark's arrival at Simpson's home and almost 12 hours after the search warrant had been signed.

*

Levin said the mistake occurred because he had been misled about the time code system on the particular machine used that night. But it was he who "broke" the original story, and it was he who had to retract the story, on the air, three times in one day.

Although still pained by his blunder, Levin said he's proud of his overall work on the Simpson story, and he eagerly ticked off several accurate stories he did break, as well as an even larger number of erroneous stories that other news media used but that he refused to broadcast because they seemed of dubious credibility and he couldn't confirm them independently.

Almost every reporter on the Simpson case can also cite the "bad" stories he or she refused to report because they didn't meet the reporter's (or the media organization's) standards. But many false stories did find their way into print and onto the airwaves, especially in the tumultuous early weeks of the case, when there was so much competitive pressure that "the desperation . . . was a tangible thing" among reporters, said David Gascon, the LAPD press relations officer in the first months of the Simpson case. "Many reporters I dealt with seemed to have lost their compass."

The frenzy continued virtually throughout the Simpson case, with only a slight lull during some of the important but often dull scientific testimony, and it reached comic-opera crescendos with two jury pursuits. The first came last spring, when reporters rushed all over town chasing down several of the 10 ousted Simpson jurors in an effort to get the "inside story" on what they thought about the case (which wasn't even half-over) and about the views of their fellow jurors (who wouldn't begin formal deliberations for another five months). The second pursuit began almost as soon as the verdicts were announced last week, when reporters and TV producers began beseeching and bombarding jurors in a fiercely determined quest to find out What Really Happened in the Jury Room.

But the most harried, hurried media coverage of the Simpson trial took place in those first days and weeks after the murders, and in this pressure cooker:

- CNN, KCBS, KNBC and KTLA all reported that there was a possible second suspect in the case.

Wrong.

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