Tabloids Affecting Trial Coverage--and the Trial Itself

The O.J. Simpson trial often sinks so low that the supermarket tabloids are the only medium capable of doing it justice.

This is because the Simpson story is on the tabloids' turf. They chronicle the world of stars and other Hollywood celebrities, big and small, and record their travels through restaurants, club openings, divorce courts, Las Vegas wedding chapels and drug rehab clinics. "Our coverage is always L.A. intensive, and we have an established source network," Enquirer articles editor David Perel told me a while back.

Even before the murders, this shadowy network was plugged into the lives of Simpson, his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and some of their friends. That's why the tabs have often been on the cutting edge of the story. To the dismay of the establishment press, legal scholars and serious attorneys, the tabs have exerted their splashy influence on the coverage of the case and even played a role in the trial itself.

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Monday was one of those days.

We in the establishment press were running news that had its genesis in one of the biggest of the supermarket tabloids, the Star.

Our story was about how two of Simpson's lawyers, F. Lee Bailey and Robert L. Shapiro, have been fighting over who betrayed their client by giving the Star a story that was potentially damaging to Simpson.

The story, written last year by the paper's Tony Frost, told of Simpson's interview with police the day after the murders of Nicole and her friend, Ronald Lyle Goldman.

One of the investigators brought into the case by Bailey has accused Shapiro of selling the transcript of the interview to Frost for $5,000. Shapiro denied it, although he admitted chatting with a Star staff member at a Los Angeles restaurant. But he claimed this encounter was arranged "to set me up."

The bitterness between Shapiro and Bailey, who were until recently great friends, has turned so vitriolic that Bailey was ejected from the Shapiro office suite and his name was removed from the Shapiro firm stationary.

In Boston, Bailey said Shapiro was hurting the Simpson defense. He issued a statement saying he was "much distressed" to see Shapiro "air his woes through the media. . . . This case is not about Mr. Shapiro or Mr. Bailey. It's about O.J. Simpson, an innocent and wrongly accused man who can hardly feel well served on the eve of trial by this public outburst."

I wanted more details, so I called the editor of the Star, Richard Kaplan.

To my surprise, Kaplan told me the Shapiro-Bailey feud was too much even for him.

"If I printed that story, people would say we were making it up," Kaplan said. "You can't make up stuff like this. Two million-dollar lawyers in a cat fight and here is this guy on trial for his life."

I asked him whether the story was a Shapiro or a Bailey leak. "Frost (the Star reporter) has said that, while he will not divulge the source, it was not Robert Shapiro," Kaplan replied.

The fact that Shapiro was fingered at all, Kaplan said, was a journalistic mix-up. Frost had run into Shapiro at a restaurant and they chatted briefly, although "not about specifics of the trial." New York columnist Liz Smith heard about the encounter, Kaplan said, and "took two and two and made five." Her report, Kaplan said, was the reason Shapiro got blamed.

I could understand the Star's unwillingness to reveal where the story came from. Journalists have gone to jail to protect their sources. But what about the price? How much did the Star pay? Was it the $5,000 quoted in the paper?

"The sum is not correct," Kaplan replied. Well, I said, since you used the word sum, aren't you confirming something was paid? "You draw whatever conclusions you want," he said.

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As our conversation ended, Kaplan called my attention to the Star's new issue, containing supposed details from Simpson's new book and an interview with Candace Garvey, the wife of former baseball player Steve Garvey. She told the Star of a conversation she had with O.J. Simpson the afternoon before the murders. "It's chilling," Kaplan said.

I went to the newsstand and bought the Star--and the Enquirer and the Globe.

As I said, the establishment press is troubled by the way the tabs and the traditional publications are beginning to merge on this story. Troubled discussions of the topic are becoming a staple of journalistic seminars on "Whither the Media." You can often catch them on C-Span.

Personally, I'm not bothered. I read the tabs all the time, and find them entertaining.

I don't think the Star or anyone else should pay for a story. If someone sells you a story, you don't know whether they are making it up, or at least exaggerating, to make a buck.

But I think reporters should chase the news--good, bad, exciting and, in the case of the Simpson lawyers, sleazy.

On this occasion, the chase led us to the unseemly and embarrassing conduct of two members of the California State Bar. Whether you are a tabloid or The Times, that's news.

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