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THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Obsession: DID THE MEDIA OVERFEED A STARVING PUBLIC? : The 16-Month Story : Reporters' Reward Is Fatigue, and Maybe a Flicker of Fame

October 09, 1995|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost from the moment the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were found early on June 13, 1994, the case has consumed the lives of the journalists assigned to it.

Reporters have been working on the Simpson story morning, noon and night, eating, sleeping and drinking O.J.

Indeed, when Henry Weinstein, one of a team of Los Angeles Times reporters assigned to the case, was visiting his mother-in-law a few weeks ago with his reporter/wife Laurie Becklund, who has been covering the Simpson story for KCBS Channel 2, both were startled by the answer their 7-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, gave one morning when her grandmother asked if she wanted some "O.J." for b reakfast.

Obviously weary of hearing about Simpson at home, Elizabeth said, "Would you please just call it orange juice?"

Most reporters assigned to the Simpson case worked long, exhausting hours, seven days a week, usually in such close proximity to one another that they often felt that they, too, were sequestered.

Local television and radio reporters filed live stories four, five, six times a day, at first from the crime scene or from O.J. Simpson's house and for the last nine months from the Downtown Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building; often they literally ran from the ninth-floor courtroom or the 12th-floor press room to their camera operators in the 12th-floor hallway and then back so they wouldn't miss any testimony.

Network reporters often did several stories a day as well, updating their evening newscast for different time zones. Some of them worked in trailers and satellite vans and atop camera platforms across the street from the courthouse in a $1-million, high-tech settlement that was quickly dubbed "Camp O.J." CBS alone had five vans. Almost 80 miles of cable was needed to service all the television stations; a total of 1,159 journalists were credentialed for the trial.

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Reporters for national wire services and East Coast newspapers--the latter, like the network evening news reporters, handicapped by the three-hour time difference--sometimes had to start writing their stories before a single witness had testified; then they had to update their accounts throughout the day, trying to concentrate on telling an increasingly convoluted and ever-changing story while sitting in the cramped press room three floors above the courtroom, where they simultaneously watched the live television coverage of the trial so they would know what was happening.

Every time there was a recess or a lunch break and the principals would leave the courtroom for a few minutes, reporters would race for the elevator, hoping to get down to the hallway outside the courtroom in time to fire a question or two at an attorney or family member or one of the reporters with seats inside the courtroom.

Male reporters often accompanied the principal attorneys into the men's rest room across the hall from the courtroom, pens and pads in hand, desperately seeking to elicit an illuminating comment over the wash basin or urinal. (Marcia Clark didn't use the public rest rooms, so women reporters were at a disadvantage during these breaks in courtroom action. But reporters of both genders could try to pry an answer out of Clark or one of the other prosecutors in the elevator as they headed up to their 18-floor offices.)

Reporters were both very competitive and very cooperative. They sat together, joked together, helped one another and often ate with one another, but when they had to make an important phone call to a source, they not only didn't use the phones in the press room, they didn't use the public phones in the 12th-floor hallway either.

They went up or down a floor, or more, for privacy.

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Once court ended for the day and the reporters had filed their latest stories, they frequently went to dinner with one another or with their sources to hash over the day's events. Either before or after dinner--often before and after dinner--they went to their homes or offices or hotel rooms to work the phones, trying to ferret out the one factoid or insight that maybe no other reporter had; night after night and weekend after weekend they called their sources in the defense and prosecution camps, as well as the expert analysts, the lawyers, ex-lawyers and law professors who had become a burgeoning cottage industry, available by beeper at any hour of the day or night with a two-sentence quote or six-second sound bite.

"I started in this business 15 years ago because it was different every day," said Marc Watts, one of CNN's primary Simpson reporters. But in an interview near the end of the Simpson trial, Watts swung his right arm to encompass the entire CNN office in Los Angeles and said, "We call this the 'Simpson bureau.' We don't do much else besides O.J. Simpson here. In fact, since the story broke, I think I've only covered six or seven other stories."

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