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A Cynical Game of Leaks, Denials

I wasn’t surprised Tuesday when the O.J. Simpson prosecution and defense attorneys denied in court that they had leaked news to the press.

That’s the way of leakers, slipping hot information to reporters and then expressing shock at the furor as if they’ve had no part in creating it. The exercise is like the scene in the movie “Casablanca,” when Claude Rains, playing the Vichy French officer, shuts down Rick’s, saying piously, “I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling going on,” and then pockets his winnings.

Prosecutor Marcia Clark and defense attorney Robert L. Shapiro proclaimed their innocence with such sincerity that they looked as though they had just stepped out of a law school ethics class. Neither they nor the other attorneys, Clark and Shapiro insisted, were responsible for the wave of information--and misinformation--in the media that has shaped and distorted the pretrial phase of the Simpson murder case.

Clark said there have been leaks from the defense and police sources, but none from the D.A.'s office. On the defense side, Shapiro said “neither myself or any lawyer on the defense team” has given interviews about evidence.

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I’ve heard these sanctimonious denials of leaking before, from politicians in Washington, Sacramento and Los Angeles, in government halls and at countless campaign trail stops.

Such double talk makes people hate politics and government. Too bad to see the same sort of behavior take hold in the courts.

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In politics, the tactic is called putting a spin on an event. In the Simpson case, to an unprecedented degree, the spin is used to influence public opinion and potential jurors.

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The leak is an important part of the spin. News leaks come from many places, usually from someone with a ax to grind.

Here’s an example of what a successful leak can do. A plain envelope delivered to The Times more than five years ago brought us a hot memo full of inside advice from a political adviser to Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. After we confirmed its authenticity with the author, we ran a story on what became known as the “BAD memo,” named after the political consulting firm, Berman and D’Agostino (BAD) Campaigns, from which it originated.

I later learned the memo had been stolen by someone who supported Mayor Tom Bradley, whom Yaroslavsky was expected to oppose in the next election. The thief figured the cynical tone would hurt Yaroslavsky, which it did. We ran it because the memo was news. At the same time, it was the vehicle for a hit job on Yaroslavsky. My emotions were mixed--the high of having a good story, along with the feeling of having been used.

Some leaks are designed to stop policies or projects. This week, for example, reporters in Washington will be slipped advance copies of favorable and unfavorable reports on health care legislation. The Whitewater story has involved a flood of leaks from both sides.

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How does a reporter get selected as the recipient of a leak? Sometimes it’s because the source knows the journalist can get the story in print or on the TV news. Other times it’s because the source and the reporter have known each other awhile.

I found that out early in my career. As part of my job of covering the state Assembly in Sacramento for Associated Press, I was assigned to watch the Rules Committee. I attended every boring meeting and got friendly with the chairman. He turned to me when he wanted to stop a huge boondoggle, a proposal to build a twin tower office building to replace the state Capitol. Publicity, he knew, would kill it. I had to dig to fill in the outlines of his tip but when the story appeared, the twin towers project was abandoned.

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Having this background, I’ve watched the Simpson news unfold with considerable cynicism. I don’t know where the reporters are getting their information, but I know the game.

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It was instructive to watch it played the past two weeks.

We’ll start with the prosecution. The last week of July, reporters got a look at a transcript of grand jury testimony. The testimony was damaging to Simpson, especially the words of a man who said the former football star followed him and Nicole Simpson and spied on them while they were intimate.

The defense or the prosecution could have had the testimony sealed. The defense erred by not doing it. The prosecution, on the other hand, scored by permitting the transcript to be open to the press. The result was stories portraying Simpson as jealous and highly possessive. This was followed the next week by a story in The Times quoting sources familiar with the case as saying police and prosecutors are working on a theory that “Simpson pursued his ex-wife with the vengeance of a stalker and that her murder on June 12 was the final act of that pursuit.”

On the Simpson side, Newsweek reported this week that defense sources say police found a cup of partially frozen ice cream near the bodies of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman just after midnight, supporting a defense theory that she was alive when Simpson was heading to the airport. Testimony at the preliminary hearing contradicts this. Still, the story, released on Sunday, a slow news day, was big on the network news and on Monday’s “Today” show, as well as appearing in the magazine. Hundreds of thousands of potential jurors saw or read it.

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In court Tuesday, prosecutor Clark complained of a “media frenzy.” Shapiro said his client, Simpson, “cannot get a fair trial” because “this matter has been over-tried in the press.”

In view of what’s happened, this is false modesty, giving the press credit where credit isn’t due. Let the prosecution and defense teams step forward and admit they are in a class with Ronald Reagan’s Michael Deaver, Bill Clinton’s George Stephanopoulos and the other spinners who’ve made us so cynical about government.


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