The Trial as Town Hall : Televised Coverage Becomes a Communal Tie That Binds America's Viewers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During a mid-morning lull at a Blimpie's sandwich shop in Manhattan, employee Maureen Heffernan stands behind the counter, poring over the latest news from the O.J. Simpson trial in the New York Post.

A doorman from an apartment building comes in for coffee and gets into an animated, friendly discussion with Heffernan and a second customer in line about recent events in the Simpson trial--events that all three have seen during hours spent watching the trial on TV.

"I can't believe how much time I'm spending watching the trial on TV and talking to people about it," marvels Heffernan, who is following the trial on Court TV. "I'm watching it with my boyfriend at home--and talking to total strangers about it at work."

Heffernan is not alone. Watching the O.J. Simpson trial and talking about it has become a national pastime. From diners to dinner parties, from lunchtime office mates to the lonely callers in Alaska who phone the CNN switchboard in Atlanta late at night just to talk about the case, the country is watching--and communing.

CNN and Court TV are continuing to sustain high ratings for live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the double-murder trial. The story regularly leads TV newscasts and newspapers, and viewers are staying tuned for extensive daily wrap-ups on the broadcast networks, from "Today" to "Nightline."

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"I guess we're going to have to revise all those theories about the 'MTV Generation' and the nation's short attention span," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications in Pennsylvania, said wryly. "Anybody who says Americans don't have an extended attention span--and an insatiable need for narrative--isn't watching O.J. Simpson."

Why do people keep watching the Simpson story?

In an increasingly fractionalized, factionalized nation, social observers say, watching and talking about the Simpson case is a communal experience, one of the few ties that bind people and give them something to talk about. Combining important culture issues (race relations, the cult of celebrity, relationships between men and women), the Simpson case is a riveting, real-life mystery that may be the ultimate example of news as entertainment.

And, ironically, in an age of highly produced, highly manipulated imagery, the fact that the live Simpson coverage is so low-tech may be an unconscious aspect of its appeal.

"We live in an unspontaneous world, where everything is pre-taped, predigested and prejudged before it comes out," said Neal Gabler, author of books on Hollywood and the culture of celebrity. "The O.J. Simpson trial offers the excitement of the unexpected."

In a medium where the world knew that Olympic champion Greg Louganis was going to tell Barbara Walters he had AIDS several days before the interview aired on TV, media scholars say, there is something appealing about the slow, real-life pace of the Simpson trial. The tedium is interrupted by not-to-be-predicted twists in the plot, and characters emerge out of nowhere onto the national scene.

"Live TV is like watching a trout stream," said Jon Boorstin, whose book, "The Hollywood Eye," explores perception and filmmaking. "Waiting for a single trout to rise from the water is curiously exciting because it happens in real time and you don't know when it's going to happen."

The Simpson story, Boorstin said, is the perfect confluence of content and technology. In addition, he said, not seeing the jury adds to the feeling that the viewer is the jury.

Court TV president Steve Brill agreed. "I think the appeal of Court TV--and CNN live--is that this is un-TV," he said. "It's not scripted, and the producers have no more control over the action than the viewers at home."

When a high-profile case grabs the nation's attention, Brill said, the ratings tend to go up as the trial continues. "The more time people spend with the case, the more invested they seem to be in finding out the outcome."

It seems insensitive to describe the Simpson case as "entertainment" in light of the personal tragedies involved. But Gabler says that it is the entertainment value of the case that keeps viewers coming back for more.

"The Simpson story may be the apotheosis of news as entertainment," Gabler said. "You have great characters: a sports hero; the beautiful, blonde wife who was murdered, the lawyers on both sides. It's like 'Perry Mason,' only better because it's real. And it's also a peculiarly modern trial: Many people believe that Simpson is guilty, but they're watching to see how a guy with slick attorneys can get off."

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Clinical psychologist Ellen McGrath said that she believes the Simpson story has a grip on the nation's psyche because it incorporates several contemporary themes in modern society. "It's a story about male-female relationships, race, abuse and dysfunctional families. Talking about the issues is a safe way for people to discuss difficult subjects."

Apart from the issues that it raises, several observers said, the Simpson trial serves a communal function.

"There are only a few events--the Persian Gulf War, the World Trade Center bombing in New York--that connect us all because we've seen them live on TV," McGrath said. "The Simpson trial provides community--and distraction--in a complex world."

For many viewers, the trial has become a TV version of a parlor-mystery game. Callers to Court TV, CNN and Geraldo Rivera's nightly discussion of the trial on CNBC reveal a knowledge of the minutiae of the case. Some sound like legal-expert wanna-bes.

"With many traditional forms of community gone from American life," Gabler said, "our community is being formed around bartering pieces of gossip. People love all the speculation and interpretation. It makes us feel connected and ahead of the curve."

"In terms of the calls we get at the CNN switchboard, the Simpson case is second only to the Persian Gulf War," said CNN vice president Ed Turner. "Everyone has an opinion, and they seem to feel they have more impact on the outcome than some faraway news event."

Of course, the extensive media coverage of the trial is reinforcing the public's appetite for the Simpson story and conferring significance on it. Despite the appetite, several critics say that there is little journalistic justification for the wall-to-wall coverage.

"The implication is that this is the most important thing happening in America today," said Everette Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York. "That is simply not true.

"There have been positive results from the trial coverage," Dennis continued. "But news is supposed to be about what affects the most people. . . . From a marketing standpoint, all the coverage of the trial makes perfect sense. From a journalistic standpoint, the extent of the coverage is indefensible."

CNN's Turner admits to mixed feelings about the extent of the Simpson coverage, but he defends it at the same time.

"There is always a tension between giving people what they want to know and what they need to know," Turner said, "but Simpson is a hell of a story. . . . I have mixed emotions about the great popularity of the Simpson coverage as opposed to Washington coverage and international news. But we are not curtailing our news coverage, and we cut away from the trial for an important breaking story."

But educator Jamieson said she is concerned that the emphasis on the Simpson case is distracting the country from important matters.

"This country is in the process of reorganizing our social-welfare system and trying to balance the budget deficit," she said. "You can have a sophisticated conversation about O.J. Simpson practically anywhere. You can't say that about the balanced-budget amendment."

Which doesn't mean she isn't awed at the spell cast by the case.

"I don't think we have the social-science tools yet to measure exactly why people are watching O.J. Simpson the way they are," Jamieson mused. "But I certainly would love to know. I'd love to be able to harness some of that energy--that narrative power--to other topics that will have real consequences in many people's lives."

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