KCBS-TV Channel 2 aired an extraordinary public apology Friday, admitting it had erred in broadcasting a splashy and hotly disputed story criticizing the conduct of prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson murder case.
The station’s investigative reporter, Harvey Levin, appeared at the beginning of the noon broadcast to retract his story, which had aired Wednesday evening. In that report, Levin had suggested that Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark had arrived at Simpson’s estate before the service of a search warrant for that property on June 13.
The station based its report on a time-stamp that indicated the tape had been filed at 10:28 on the day of the search. The search warrant for Simpson’s home was signed by a judge at 10:45 a.m., and Levin announced that Clark’s early appearance on the scene could have significant implications for the prosecution--a premise that most legal experts disputed.
On Friday, station officials said the tape actually was filed at 10:28 p.m. --not 10:28 a.m., as Levin had maintained in his original story. Levin admitted, in a second explanation aired during Friday’s 5 p.m. newscast, that the station could not pinpoint when the tape was made.
The story--one of a series of erroneous or disputed reports that have surfaced since the media frenzy over the Simpson case erupted--has ethical implications beyond the questions of accuracy: The technician who logged in the tape alerted news director Bob Jordan about the discrepancy Thursday evening, but the station aired the footage on its 11 p.m. broadcast and promoted the exclusive in commercials Friday morning touting its Simpson coverage.
Levin’s initial story was widely reported in newspapers and on radio and television programs, including CBS News morning newscasts Thursday and Friday. The network took the unusual step Friday of reporting the error on its “CBS Evening News,” which had declined to pick up the original KCBS story. “We did not think it was relevant or reliable,” said a spokeswoman.
The KCBS retraction prompted industrywide speculation about possible corporate action against news management and reporters at the Los Angeles station, while media experts said the mistake reflected the pitfalls of the intensity of coverage surrounding the Simpson case.
“This search for the competitive edge and the insatiable hunger for any scrap of information in this case has really hurt the media,” said Maureen Rubin, an attorney and a professor of journalism law at Cal State Northridge. She added that the KCBS story, as well as other erroneous reports about evidence in the case by other news organizations, might result in public mistrust of the media.
The station’s heavy promotion of its Simpson coverage added to the embarrassment factor Friday. Anchor Michael Tuck had characterized Levin’s initial story as “a bombshell” during the 5 p.m. newscast Thursday.
Levin himself, in a Thursday appearance on the “Michael Jackson Show” on KABC-AM, took credit for acting as one of the media’s “constitutional police officers” safeguarding against sloppy work by police and prosecutors.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” Levin told Jackson. “Sometimes, it’s always a good idea to go back over videotape shot at the beginning of a story. . . . It’s like a good movie, you see things the second time around.”
” . . . I have a feeling that this tape is going to be subpoenaed today. It’s going to end up being perhaps an important element in this case.”
But soon after, the story began to unravel.
The district attorney’s office issued a blunt denial Thursday. According to several people who were at the scene, Clark did not arrive at the Simpson estate until after noon on the day of the search.
At first, KCBS stood by its story. But after Thursday’s 6 p.m. newscast, station news director Jordan said, he was told of the discrepancy by a night shift technician who had filed the tape as part of the day’s raw footage, and who told Jordan that the tape could not have been filed during the day.
Still, the footage of Clark at the scene aired during the station’s 11 p.m. newscast Thursday as part of a report on the district attorney’s rebuttal. Also, a commercial aired Friday morning during “CBS This Morning” listed the story among other “exclusives” KCBS had gotten in the Simpson case.
During the Friday noon newscast, Levin told viewers, “We want to apologize. We now have reason to believe that we made a mistake in one of our reports.” Explaining how the mistake could have occurred, and displaying the “10:28" label on the tape case, Levin said: “We no longer have any evidence to support our original story. Channel 2 and I would like particularly to apologize to Marcia Clark, the district attorney’s office and to our viewers for this error.”
Jordan said during an interview Friday that he did not become convinced that the time on the tape might be wrong until Friday morning. He said he ordered the commercial pulled at that time.
“It was an honest mistake, we regret it, and we apologized,” Jordan said. “I’m not convinced that the time was in error, but I’m not confident that it’s fact, so we had an obligation to retract the story.”
The issue brought further attention to Levin, whose competitive style has rankled some colleagues, rivals and targets of his reports.
“I don’t apologize for being an aggressive reporter,” Levin said Friday. “I stand on my record and the stories that I’ve broken. We have quality control at this station. We made a mistake, we know how it was made, we’ve corrected it, and it is something that will not happen again.”
The flap over the tape is just the latest in a series of disputed or erroneous reports about evidence in the Simpson case. Most notable have been an article stating that police had recovered a sharpened trenching tool that they believed was the murder weapon and a television report that a bloody ski mask had been recovered at the scene of the crime. Both were incorrect but were widely broadcast and discussed in the early days of the case.
(The Times did not publish either of those disputed reports, nor did it carry the KCBS-TV story.)
The station’s actions Friday prompted a brief statement from the district attorney’s office, saying that it appreciated KCBS’ “taking responsible action in retracting its story.”
Some media experts said the incident is a prime example of the pitfalls of pack reporting, particularly in the Simpson case.
“In no other story would there have been an inquiry into what time the prosecutor arrived at the scene,” said Bryce Nelson, chairman of graduate journalism studies at USC. “The coverage has gotten real excessive when there’s nothing new to report. It leads to stories that can be harmful or dubious.”
Times staff writer Jim Newton contributed to this story.