Friday, Nov. 22, an O.J. day.
Inside was the Santa Monica courtroom where O.J. Simpson would be publicly interrogated by an attorney holding him responsible for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. Outside were the masses of media, all revved up with nowhere to go.
And some of them--thanks to cameras being barred from the courtroom--with nothing to do but generate a fog of speculation and premature judgments based on blurry data, out-of-context testimony, second-party reports and interpretation. Most of it toppled out during early morning previews, updates throughout the day from several local stations and large chunks of coverage on cable's MSNBC.
MSNBC was especially absurd in spewing minute-by-minute trial reports and quickie analysis that began almost with the opening gavel. Outside the courthouse was anchor/reporter John Gibson, getting snippets of testimony relayed by someone inside, then applying his own twist and asking others to draw conclusions based on what he was telling them secondhand. The process soared to a weird apex when Gibson began a dialogue about Simpson's testimony by satellite with a jury consultant in Miami.
No less loopy was Gibson, just two hours into the morning's testimony, asking NBC legal analyst Jack Ford what Simpson's attorney, Bob Baker, must do to "rehabilitate" his client.
The day's TV amnesiacs appeared not to recall the hasty judgments made during Simpson's criminal trial when, after fragmentary early testimony, viewers were repeatedly assured that Simpson was cooked. Instead, he was found not guilty.
On Friday, some in the media seemed eager to overturn the verdict, the tone of their coverage creating an expectation of defeat for Simpson in this civil case, as if one day on the stand had sunk him. And this time there was no video record for viewers who wanted to judge for themselves.
An exception Friday was Los Angeles attorney Jay Jaffe, now seemingly reborn after sinning on TV as a knee-jerk trial handicapper during Simpson I. He issued this warning during a KCBS-TV Channel 2 "Action News" special hashing over Simpson's encounter with attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli:
"We can analyze and overanalyze, and we still don't know. We learned from the criminal trial that you have to take a step back and not look at the performance of a lawyer . . . or a witness. You can't assess this like a boxing match. You have to look at the big picture."
He might as well have been advocating snowshoes for Guam.
The Channel 2 program was distended by gaseous opinion and hot air. The perpetrators included Southwestern University law professor Robert Pugsley and attorney Al De Blanc Jr., who made shameless snap judgments based on shards of testimony read to them on the air. Another offender was anchor Ann Martin when asking the attorneys to comment on Simpson's claim in court that he'd never hit his ex-wife, Nicole.
"Was he better off to lie or was he better off to tell the truth and face the evidence?" she wondered. In other words, Martin, who is paid handsomely to be a news reader, not a commentator, was calling Simpson a liar. True or not, it wasn't her call to make.
Other reports were as biased against Simpson, if not as audacious. Enter Channel 2's Larry Carroll in Santa Monica, mentioning a response to some of Simpson's testimony by occupants of a room in the courthouse ticketed for overflow media: "The eyebrows went up audibly all over the audio room." Media tongues aren't enough? Now we're also to take our cues from media eyebrows, audible ones no less?
In contrast was the more careful trial reporting of Cynthia McFadden on ABC's "World News Tonight" and George Lewis on "NBC Nightly News," and the measured commentary, however brief, of UCLA law professor Peter Arenella on ABC and Loyola Law School Dean Laurie Levenson, and prosecutor Greg Garrison on "The CBS Evening News."
Beyond piecemeal headlines generated by TV on Friday was a large banner that kept showing up in the background during live reports from the courthouse. It said, "Jesus Saves You Now," a reminder that media covering the Simpson trial need all the grace they can get.