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THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Obsession: DID THE MEDIA OVERFEED A STARVING PUBLIC? : CHAPTER EIGHT: TALK OF THE TOWN : 'How much is too much? Are we all prostituting ourselves to the O.J. thing? Have we been driven by the lowest common denominator?'

October 09, 1995|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

Early in the week of June 13, 1994, the editors of Time and Newsweek magazines knew they had a cover story for that week's editions.

Over the next 10 months, Newsweek published six cover stories on the Simpson case and more than 100 Simpson stories and items all told. Many broke new ground and were quoted in other publications and applauded by other journalists.

Time, meanwhile, published only one other Simpson cover until the issue before the verdict, 16 months later. Overall, Time published a little more than half as many Simpson stories as Newsweek. Many weeks, Time limited its coverage to a single paragraph in its "Chronicles" section.

Why has Time been so dismissive of a story that its primary competitor thinks is important?

Maynard Parker, the editor of Newsweek, thinks the answer is that Time's first cover story featured the now-infamous "sinister" Simpson photo, and that angry reaction to that cover made the magazine gun-shy. "Time botched the story so badly the first week out of the box," he said, "that they've shied away from it. . . . They've been very self-conscious about it."

James Gaines, managing editor of Time, denied that the "sinister" cover influenced his decision to downplay the Simpson story.

"I just don't think there are that many people waiting for us to summarize the week's events," he said. With live television coverage and daily newspaper coverage, "people who are interested know it and people who aren't don't want to" read about it in Time.

News organizations like Newsweek that "made the mistake of really going for . . . O.J. newsstand sales and O.J. [TV] ratings . . . will be tarnished by it ultimately," Gaines said.

*

Time and Newsweek are not the only competitors who have taken disparate approaches to the Simpson story:

- In Simpson's hometown, the San Francisco Examiner, despite a considerably smaller news hole than the San Francisco Chronicle, has nonetheless published more than twice as many Simpson stories on Page 1 as has the Chronicle.

- Among the three traditional nightly network newscasts, NBC's "Nightly News" has devoted almost 50% more air time to the Simpson story than has ABC's "World News Tonight." (The CBS "Evening News" has given the story slightly less time than has "Nightly News.')

- The Los Angeles Times has published more than twice as many Simpson stories and has probably devoted 10 times as much total space to Simpson as has the New York Times.

The reasons for these dramatic differences, as advanced by the journalists responsible for them, reflect much more than just a professional difference of opinion, an intramural squabble suitable for discussion in a college journalism review. Much as the different attitudes of white and African American journalists on the Simpson case reflect a major chasm in society at large, so the differing approaches of various media organizations reflect a chasm between those who think the story has been worthy of all the media attention it has received and those who think it has been vastly overcovered. Tom Brokaw, anchor for the NBC "Nightly News," said he can't remember a story that "caused so much angst," at NBC and elsewhere. In the early weeks and months of the story, Brokaw said, NBC staffers were constantly asking themselves and one another, "How much is too much? Are we all prostituting ourselves to the O.J. thing? Have we been driven by the lowest common denominator?"

Around the time the trial started, Brokaw said he told his staff, "Listen, we're not going to have this larger philosophical debate every time an O.J. story comes up. We're going to make a decision based on what's going on that day and whether we think this is something worthwhile putting on the air. What we finally decided [is] . . . like it or not, it's a continually compelling story at about nine different levels. If this were 200 years ago, this would be Othello. This would be the stuff of grand opera."

"Othello" had a long run on NBC.

*

Brokaw frankly acknowledges that his program gave the Simpson story so much time--15% of its total newscast since January--because NBC was afraid that the "national obsession" with the case and the live, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial by CNN, Court TV and others might "drain away audience from mainstream news programming" at NBC and elsewhere. He said NBC put "an O.J. element in 'Nightly News' to . . . [tell viewers], 'You can get some of that here as well.' "

In other words, NBC was seeking ratings.

Peter Jennings, Brokaw's counterpart at ABC, thinks that was a mistake.

"Those people who want [Simpson coverage] . . . are going to get a lot more of it elsewhere," he said. "Why are they going to come to us for a sandwich when they can have a seven-course meal somewhere else?"

Who was right?

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