TELEVISION : Spoofing a Crime, a Chase and Media Race

Fox wisely agreed to postpone its O.J. Simpson movie until after the selection of jurors for his double-homicide trial, a process that began only Monday. Yet that very evening, CBS comedies "Murphy Brown" and "Love & War" went forward with their combined hourlong satire of the case.

Was this irresponsible, risking further tainting of potential jurors?

"Our little story about an astronaut and his brother isn't going to influence anybody," writer-producer Diane English said earlier Monday in a TV interview about her back-to-back series' merged plot that night, in which a celebrity suspected of murder takes flight from police on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Wrong. This was an outrageous miscarriage of sitcom justice. There was no perspective here, no balance, no intent to be objective, no attempt to grant equal time to the accused. Instead, this was a clear indictment, one that resonated across the airwaves and reached millions and millions of Americans. Call out the lynch mobs. No one who watched Monday night could have any doubt whatsoever.

About the guilt of the media.

On the other hand, you'd have to say the target asked for it, that the evidence here against the media, cited in the best tradition of spoofing, was not only persuasive but also overpowering. As was the sense of deja vu , a reminder of how the line separating parody and self-parody--the latter term applicable to much of this case's TV coverage--is barely discernible.

On Thursday, NBC's "Seinfeld" also will deal comedically with the Simpson pursuit. But it's increasingly difficult these days to tell the spoof from the reality. The commercial break between Monday's "Murphy Brown" and "Love & War," for example, included a titillating promo from KCBS-TV Channel 2 for its 11 p.m. news--"Insiders tell what went on behind closed doors!"--that gave a somewhat gossipy tone to the first day of jury selection for the Simpson trial.

O.J.-related lore proliferates throughout television. Yet, on Monday, Channel 2's broadcast day was particularly laden with the stuff, from its early and late newscasts to "The CBS Evening News," which led with the juror selection. Elsewhere on Channel 2, the syndicated "Hard Copy" exposed the side of Deputy Dist. Atty. Marcia Clark "you don't see," and "Entertainment Tonight" had Bob Goen covering the media crush for the first day of jury selection.

Goen incorrectly stated that only one reporter would be allowed to witness the jury selection process (three are being allowed in), an excusable gaffe given that his main experience on television has been as a game show host.

A game show host assigned a portion of the Simpson beat? That seems to be a metaphor for at least some of the coverage, as TV reporters increasingly report condescendingly on the media circus outside the courthouse, conveniently forgetting that they are part of it.

"Murphy Brown" ridiculed the center ring. The Simpson surrogate in co-executive producer Michael Saltzman's funny script was a heroic astronaut named Duke Robinson. The murder of his brother caused the "FYI" office to ripple with rumors. Was it was a Mob hit? A KGB hit?

When Duke himself became the suspect, Murphy's news colleagues whipped themselves into a frenzy that shortly assumed a life of its own, as has the media frenzy in the Simpson case. So bring on the marathon live coverage that will set an agenda for the nation, focusing so acutely on the case that Americans will think of little else. In other words, the media inflate the story, building interest, then use their own creation as justification for relentless overwrought coverage.

"Murphy, Jim, you're anchoring in the studio," gasped Miles Silverberg, "FYI's" hyperventilating executive producer. "Oh, God, this is so great!"

Familiarity threaded the entire episode. Adding to the theater, the "FYI" coverage immediately earned a theatrical title: "Lost Astronaut." Naturally, there was gratuitous live coverage, with Frank Fontana posted outside police headquarters, where Duke was to turn himself in. "What's the mood like there?" Jim, the anchor, asked.

Of course, nothing was happening but the coverage. So bring in the meaningless, unseen-by-anyone raw footage . . . of a fire hydrant . . . of trash cans . . . of a dog. Jim: "A golden retriever, wouldn't you say?"

Frank couldn't say anything, because there was nothing to report. So anchors Jim and Murphy nervously shuffled their papers, live. And with time to fill and nothing to fill it with, there was reporter Corky Sherwood outside the victim's "fateful apartment," wondering about the contents of a mysterious paper sack brought out by police. It turned out to be coffee and doughnuts. And there she was interviewing groupies and various loonies to pad the minutes. And there she was later, live, getting the lowdown at the gas station where Duke always filled up.

The only skeptic here was Murphy. But her urgings to "hit the pause button" and stop covering Duke like a convicted murderer were rejected by Miles. "Hey, we do this all the time," he said.

Ultimately, Duke failed to show up at either police headquarters or his "historic townhouse," but instead was located on the turnpike in a white van trailed by police, with TV capturing it all live.

The "Love & War" episode, written by Shannon Gaughan, picked up the story from there, with nearly everyone in the Blue Shamrock transfixed by the chase coverage on the bar's TV set. "Let's flip around and see who's got the best copter shot," Jack said. "Hold it, hold it, he's changing lanes!" someone else shouted.

As Duke's van headed for the Statue of Liberty that he wanted to see "one last time," rumors swept the restaurant. "They found half a tuna sandwich at the crime scene, the other half at Duke's house," Meg said. When the chase ended peacefully, without bloodshed, the revved-up viewers in the Blue Shamrock were deflated, as if wanting a more rousing climax.

The episode was a humorous slap not only at the public's prurient interest but also at the media's feeding of that interest. At one point, a waitress told a TV news producer who had come into the bar an unsubstantiated story about the case and, without verifying it, he called it in to a reporter on the air, who then repeated it as fact.

Rumors? Innuendo? As Miles would say, hey, they do it all the time.

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