A favorite editor often told me that when you don't know anything about the story you're writing, the best thing to do is talk to lots of people and ask them plenty of questions.
I thought of that advice from Ed Guthman, now a USC journalism professor, as I tried to figure out how to write about race and the O.J. Simpson murder case.
It's been part of the case from the beginning, and for understandable reasons. An African American sports hero is accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend, both white. Simpson was arrested and is being tried in a city where, in the belief of many African Americans, the police and courts routinely treat blacks unjustly. Who could ignore the racial factor here, where so many races live in uneasy proximity?
This set of circumstances has helped make the case the No. 1 conversation piece here and elsewhere. People have drawn conclusions and are arguing about them in detail even though Simpson isn't scheduled to go on trial until next month.
We've heard, for example, whites say that there will be a hung jury if African Americans are among the jurors. Blacks, they say, won't vote against a brother. The other day, an African American man told me he too believed that at least some blacks on the jury would oppose conviction, no matter what. There had been too many years of unjust treatment of blacks by police and the courts for the result to be otherwise, he said.
This may be true. But one thing I've learned in my years as a reporter is that people are so complicated you can't predict what they'll do.
I know that juries, once formed, have a life of their own. I've seen these group dynamics at work in my own jury service in minor criminal trials. My brother Jeff, a criminal defense lawyer, tells me that he notices how groups form in juries. He usually can predict who will be elected foreperson when the jury begins deliberations.
So no matter what I've been told about blacks on juries, I know there is more to the story. I listened to the voice of my former editor, and started talking to people.
I started on a recent Saturday with a Rep. Maxine Waters youth forum that was designed to air the views of young people on a variety of issues.
The room in the Armory Building at Exposition Park was packed with tables of men and women in their late teens and early 20s, discussing life in this place of so many races and tensions.
I picked a table where a small group was talking about the media. What struck me immediately is how much they distrust us. "I see (television) as sensationalist," said an African American woman. "I don't think there's a balance. . . . They'll spend 10 minutes on the fact that Hispanics and African Americans were fighting, but how much will they talk about how we sat here and spoke together and did something positive? That irritates me."
"You know what I think about the media?" said an African American man. "It's a job. They don't really care about what's happening. They've just got to compete. The news says O.J. killed his ex-wife and her lover. They don't really know. They just rushed in. A real news (organization) would have somebody investigate it or something."
What they said fit in with public opinion polls showing widespread disapproval of the media. A Los Angeles Times Poll in June found that 67% of those surveyed said the media have behaved irresponsibly in the Simpson case. Blacks felt that way 87% to 8%, whites 72% to 20% and Latinos 54% to 34%.
What has been overlooked in the discussion of race and the Simpson case is what impact the media have on prospective jurors who don't trust the news accounts they see on TV or read. Have all the lawyers, trying to shape the news, been wasting their time on a hostile or unreceptive audience?
Another point that has been overlooked is the strong law and order feeling in the African American community, which could counter pro-Simpson feelings.
This is a complex subject. Los Angeles blacks disapprove of the police in higher numbers than whites and Latinos, according to the Times poll, although they, like other groups, generally approve of the department. The lower rating no doubt stems from a strong feeling, supported by outrageous cases, that the LAPD unjustly hassles and arrests African Americans, especially young men.
I talked to African Americans who said years of such abuse are responsible for higher sympathy for Simpson among blacks than in other ethnic groups.
But blacks also feel less safe in their neighborhoods than other Angelenos, and many of those who terrorize them are black criminals. These mixed emotions were evident Thursday night at a meeting of AGENDA, a group that is working to give South-Central L.A. residents more power in shaping the LAPD's new community-policing program.
They wanted respect from the cops. But there were many nods and murmurs of agreement when Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said: "The No. 1 issue is public safety. People want to have a sense of safety and security. I don't know of anyone who doesn't. Yet too many of us don't feel safe."
These are people who have no patience for crime, for the crack houses, prostitution motels and drug markets in Laundromats and liquor store parking lots. Will the difficult circumstances of daily life have an impact when such African American jurors deliberate?
Late in the week, I was reminded of another force that complicates the racial issue in the Simpson case.
I talked to Melanie Lomax, a civil rights attorney who led the fight to oust Police Chief Daryl F. Gates when she was president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners.
It is the issue of spousal abuse, and the fact that Simpson abused his ex-wife. This, she felt, should have an impact on jurors. We wondered what would happen if some of the jurors were black women over 40 with, as she put it, life's experience. How would they react?
That could be a crucial point in the outcome of the trial. We'll tackle that in another column.