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THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Obsession: DID THE MEDIA OVERFEED A STARVING PUBLIC? : CHAPTER SIX: THE RACE CARD : 'No, no, no. He couldn't be guilty . . . Well, maybe he could.'

October 09, 1995|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

Cynthia McFadden of ABC News finds it ironic that while intense public and media interest in the Simpson case "bespeak a nation that longs for something in common," the story has wound up being "divisive," exposing and exacerbating racial differences in our society.

Jessica Seigel of the Chicago Tribune agrees. She is one of many reporters, white and black, who think the news media relied too heavily on early public opinion polls, rather than performing their own independent reporting, on how blacks and whites felt about the case against Simpson.

Seigel, who like McFadden is white, thinks the polls misstated or at least mischaracterized the attitudes of many African Americans toward Simpson's guilt or innocence. Most of these polls, she suggests, asked only a few questions and got predictably superficial or knee-jerk answers about feelings that were really quite complex. The reporting on these polls has been "creating [racial] divisions where there might not be any," she said.

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Early in the trial, Seigel spent some time at a Los Angeles barbershop patronized largely by African Americans. At first, she says, they told her, "No, no, no. He couldn't be guilty." But after she sat down and talked with them a bit, "they would say, 'Well, maybe he could.' "

Sam Fulwood III, an African American reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, got similar results in his own, informal barbershop poll. "I don't think any blacks want to give up any black man . . . to the white racist criminal justice system," Fulwood said. "If pollsters, 99% of whom are white, ask blacks if he's guilty, then the 'race gene' kicks in and they all say no. Privately, like in my barbershop, they may say, 'Oh yeah, he did it. But I wouldn't tell any white person that.' "

This is not to suggest that the polls are entirely wrong. Clearly, a higher percentage of African Americans than whites think Simpson is innocent. And a much higher percentage were hoping that he hadn't committed the murders and were relieved when he was acquitted.

But many critics say the media exaggerated the black-white gap on the Simpson case and, more important, missed the significant nuances it represented.

Blacks were especially outspoken on this point.

"Many black people I know have mixed feelings," said Janet Clayton, editor of the editorial pages at the Los Angeles Times. "No matter what they tell the pollsters, what they really mean is they think he's innocent until proven guilty."

Blacks are more likely than whites to take this position sincerely and not just pay lip service to it, Clayton said, "because of their own experience with the criminal justice system--their experience or their uncle's or brother's or cousin's."

Virtually every African American interviewed for on this issue had stories about African Americans--themselves and/or others--being hassled or arrested by the police for no reason other than the stereotypes associated with their skin color. Thus, said Karen Smith of Southwestern University School of Law, when pollsters asked people if they thought Simpson was innocent, many black respondents, unlike their white counterparts, may actually have been answering the (unasked) question, "Is it possible to believe that he could have been framed?"

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Even before the Mark Fuhrman tapes surfaced, most blacks would have answered that question with a resounding "Yes."

But many blacks were willing to at least consider the possibility that Simpson was guilty anyway.

As Stanley Crouch, an African American, wrote in the New York Daily News seven weeks ago, in the aftermath of the Fuhrman tape controversy, there are those who "believe [Simpson] was framed for a crime he committed."

The media gave virtually no attention to this possibility. The very few stories that did mention it didn't explore it in any detail.

Lorraine Adams, a white reporter for the Washington Post, said that in the course of reporting a story in July about the differing racial perspectives on the Simpson case, she found that African Americans were much more open-minded about the case than were whites. Blacks are "much more able to come up with reasons why he could be guilty than whites are able to come up with reasons why he could be innocent," she said. "The whites . . . are more implacable and hearing less. . . . I find an unwillingness on the part of whites to hear, to actually listen and absorb and give credit to the black experience of the criminal justice system. . . . The coverage of the conspiracy is always coverage that says it's implausible."

Adams wrote about this distinction, but few others in the media did so, despite all the stories they wrote and broadcast about the racial divide that the case had exposed.

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