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Is Horse Race Journalism Bad for Covering Trials? You Bet

Sitting in The Times’ newsroom Friday, away from the courthouse for the first time all week, I felt like I had escaped from a madhouse and found my way into a sanctuary of peace and tranquillity.

Our newsroom is actually not much of a sanctuary. We work in close proximity at three-person workstations. The room is a huge noisy barn of a place. But compared to the Criminal Courts Building, home of the O.J. Simpson trial, it’s heaven.

Part of the problem at the courthouse is our accommodations. The print reporters work in a narrow, poorly ventilated room on the 12th floor. Narrow tables line the wall, with another long table in the center. Reporters sit within a few inches of each other. Writing on our laptops, we hold our arms close to our sides to avoid elbowing our neighbors. Four television sets on the wall carry pictures and sound from the 9th-floor courtroom or from commentators during recess.

At deadline time, the place gets incredibly tense. Some of America’s best trial reporters furiously scan transcripts as they write their stories for editors who are down to the wire on their deadlines.

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In the elevator lobby a few feet away, the atmosphere is just as frantic. Half a dozen television crews deliver stand-up reports from the area several times a day.

This demand for something new is an important factor in creating the taut atmosphere of the pressroom and the fevered coverage of the trial.

In a way, reporting the Simpson trial has the feel of covering a big sports event, maybe something like the Super Bowl.

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This was especially true last week when both sides gave their opening statements. In an ordinary trial, the speeches would have been examples of average-to-good oratory. But in the high-speed world of Simpson journalism, they were said to be powerful statements, shaping the news stories hour by hour, day by day.

First, the district attorney’s office moved ahead with dramatic words by Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden. Their speeches, which led the news stories, were praised by most of the talking-head attorney commentators.

But come Tuesday, we would be told that poor Clark and Darden were left in the dust by defense attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., whose opening statement was rated a prosecution-humbling winner.

This preoccupation with who’s ahead is known as horse race journalism. It is particularly virulent in the coverage of politics and government. Last weekend, President Clinton was practically written off as a lame duck on the TV talk shows and in print. But on Thursday, a CNN/USA Today poll showed that 83% of those who watched his State of the Union speech backed his positions. Now Clinton is on his way up again.

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In politics, the fixation on winning and losing has had a disastrous impact on public policy.

Take the health care debate. Early in the game, there were many in-depth stories that assumed universal care would pass. But as the debate neared a climax and became intertwined with the political hopes of Clinton and Congress, the winners-and-losers angle became an increasingly important part of the story. In the beginning, we learned about the issues. At the end, all we knew was that Clinton lost and the Republicans won. The issue itself faded to the background.

Horse race journalism is a particularly bad fit for reporting trials.

The Simpson trial will last for months, probably through June, maybe longer. Like all trials, it will take many twists and turns, a process exacerbated by the powerful legal teams on both sides. Every issue will be hard fought, just as happened in court last week.

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The opening statements that dominated last week may well be submerged by other developments. Witnesses that look important now could be demolished by cross-examination. A trial is a marathon, not a six-furlong race.

Some of the most important developments will defy the ability of reporters to find a sharp, simple angle. DNA testing, for example, will be pivotal to the case and one of the most interesting aspects of the trial.

It’s the whodunit part. In the hands of a novelist or a science writer, the DNA battle will come across as a complex and dramatic search for the truth--a scientific thriller.

But bound by the confines of a news story, the daily journalists will have trouble with DNA. As the deadline approaches, they’ll be racing around the pressroom asking the desperate question of their trade: “What’s the lead?”

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In our business, we constantly discuss this journalistic dilemma. There may be no way out of it. Daily papers and the broadcast outlets deliver information quickly. The newspaper format calls for a sharp headline and a strong lead for a daily news story, to make it easy for hurried readers to digest.

We flatter ourselves by calling this history in a hurry, but in reality we are telling just part of the story, without the nuances that explain things. When a verdict comes in on O.J. Simpson, we have to worry about whether history in a hurry was sufficient to have prepared the reader for the decision.

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A word from the readers: I got a couple of complaints on Friday’s column about whether I’m too cynical. I mentioned that I was embarrassed to admit I had doubts when I heard that Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman had been hospitalized with chest pains. It was an example of journalistic cynicism, and I quoted an old friend in the column who chided me for this attitude.

One of the complaints came from attorney Leslie Abramson, who represents accused murderer Erik Menendez. She called my comment outrageous. I also got a fax from Robert A. Schwartz of North Hollywood, former president of the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Bar, who said he was disturbed because I publicly discussed my fleeting thought that Hodgman may have been faking. “At the very least,” Schwartz said, “I believe you owe Mr. Hodgman an apology.”

I called Schwartz on Friday and told him the column was about me and my cynicism, not about Hodgman. He said some of the readers wouldn’t understand that.

Mr. Schwartz, I replied, my readers are smart and sophisticated enough to understand anything.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The View From Both Sides

In opening statements delivered so far, prosecutors and defense lawyers have sketched sharply different portraits of the physical evidence in the O.J. Simpson murder case. Prosecutors say a literal blood trail ties Simpson to the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. Defense attorneys say what evidence exists is ambiguous and that some pieces actually point to his innocence.

“The mere fact that we find blood where there should be no blood, in the defendant’s car, in his house, in the driveway, and even on the socks in his very bedroom at the foot of his bed...is devastating proof of his guilt.”

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--Marcia Clark Deputy district attorney

“The fact that there is no blood where there should be blood is devastating evidence of innocence.”

--Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Lead Simpson trial lawyer

ACCORDING TO THE PROSECUTION

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At the crime scene:

A) SKI CAP: Fibers like those from O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco carpet. Also hairs like those of O.J. Simpson.

B) GOLDMAN’S SHIRT: One hair like O.J. Simpson’s.

C) FIVE BLOOD DROPS: Each to the left of a trail of bloody, size 12 shoe prints leading away from the bodies, matched to O.J. Simpson using DNA testing.

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D) LEFT-HANDED GLOVE: Matches one found at Simpson’s mansion.

In Simpson’s Bronco:

E) BLOOD FROM INSIDE PANEL: Matches O.J. Simpson, according to DNA tests.

F) BLOOD FROM CONSOLE: Consistent with a mixture of O.J. Simpson and Goldman, according to DNA analysis,

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G) BLOOD DROP FROM CONSOLE: Shows mixture of Goldman, Nicole Simpson and O.J. Simpson, according to DNA tests.

H) BLOOD ON CARPET: Matches Nicole Simpson, according to DNA tests.

At Simpson’s house:

I) RIGHT-HANDED GLOVE: Matches one from the crime scene; stained with blood consistent with a mixture of O.J. Simpson, Nicole Simpson and Goldman, according to DNA tests.

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J) BLOOD DROPS ON DRIVEWAY: Match O.J. Simpson, according to DNA tests.

K) BLOOD DROPS IN FOYER: Match O.J. Simpson, according to DNA tests.

L) PAIR OF SOCKS IN BEDROOM: Each sock has one blood spot, one of which matches O.J. Simpson’s blood. The other matches Nicole Simpson, according to DNA tests.

ACCORDING TO THE DEFENSE

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At the crime scene:

1) BLOOD UNDER NICOLE SIMPSON’S FINGERNAILS: Blood protein Type B, matching neither hers, Goldman’s nor O.J. Simpson’s.

2) BLOOD DROP ON NICOLE SIMPSON’S THIGH: Also blood protein Type B.

3) BLOOD DROPS ACROSS NICOLE SIMPSON’S BACK: Wiped off without being tested, depriving the defense of potentially exculpatory evidence.

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4) SHOE PRINTS: Experts will say that there are two sets at the crime scene, not one, as prosecutors maintain.

In Simpson’s Bronco:

5) AMOUNT OF BLOOD: Relatively little, given the brutal knife slashings. Experts will testify that the assailant should have been drenched with blood.

6) BLOOD DROPS: Defense will say that drops in car that match O.J. Simpson were left there when he cut himself retrieving a cellular phone from the Bronco.

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At Simpson’s house:

7) RIGHT-HANDED GLOVE: Defense will suggest that it was planted, perhaps by LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman.

8) BLOOD DROPS ON DRIVEWAY: They are O.J. Simpson’s, but defense will say that he lost that blood while returning from the Bronco with his phone.

9) BLOOD DROPS IN FOYER: Same explanation as driveway.

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10) PAIR OF SOCKS IN BEDROOM: Attorneys will argue that the socks were not initially stained with blood but that someone smeared them in order to frame Simpson.

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Researched by JIM NEWTON / Los Angeles Times


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