Dennis Schatzman, a Los Angeles Sentinel reporter and columnist covering the double murder trial of O.J. Simpson, says he doesn’t buy into the justice system’s creed of innocent until proven guilty.
“In this country a black man is presumed guilty until proven innocent,” said Schatzman while waiting in line at the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building for his courtroom pass.
And his reporting reflects that belief. Schatzman has alluded in stories to a possible police frame-up and insisted that the mainstream media has mistreated Simpson. He has challenged the credibility of some witnesses, including Denise Brown and former police officer Ronald Shipp, both of whom have admitted to alcohol problems in the past. He wrote about Shipp and Brown in a story headlined “Two ‘Drunks’ Join O.J. Cast of ‘Addicts, Liars.’ ”
Schatzman provides readers of the Sentinel, a weekly 30,000-circulation paper devoted to the African American community, with a black perspective on every aspect of the case. He’s among a handful of reporters who work for Los Angeles ethnic media who put their own spin on the trial of the century, giving their respective communities different perspectives--from the serious to the offbeat.
“I’m giving my readers a different kind of insight, a black perspective,” said the in-your-face Schatzman on a recent Friday morning.
“Every medium and every reporter is looking for a unique angle. But particularly, for someone like me, who writes for a weekly, I’ve only got 52 bites out of the apple each year.” Schatzman, whose column is syndicated by the National Newspaper Publishers Assn., which represents more than 200 black publications, said he has to “look for things that others haven’t covered.”
Schatzman has written about Simpson’s initial handcuffing, before he was even a suspect, and its implications to many in the black community. From calls, letters and conversations on the street Schatzman finds out what his readers’ interests are. Besides the treatment of Simpson by police, readers have expressed curiosity about Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito and where he stands on the case. And they want to know why certain lawyers for the prosecution “prance around the courtroom, scowling at everybody.”
“I got a lot of nasty calls and letters, you know, mainly from white people,” he said of his column on Shipp and Brown. But judging from reader response, he is confident that most “agree with what I write or with what the Sentinel writes.”
Has he been accused of advocating that Simpson is innocent? “Yeah,” he said.
“But what I write is what I believe in. It doesn’t mean I’m pro-O.J. What I am pro about is the process. The process has to be fair for everyone.”
At the Rafu Shimpo, the largest and oldest Japanese American newspaper in the country, editor Naomi Hirahara says her publication hasn’t covered the case daily because “quite frankly we can’t compete with the other media.”
Her readers like it that way.
But the paper, which is published in both Japanese and English and has a circulation of 23,000, hasn’t neglected major aspects of the case, especially those that affect the Asian readership, said Hirahara, the newspaper’s English-language editor. “We are a voice for our community.”
Those stories included police criminalist Dennis Fung’s testimony and the controversy over defense attorney Robert Shapiro’s mockery of Fung’s surname (Shapiro later apologized for handing out fortune cookies and saying they were from the “Hang Fung Restaurant”).
A story on U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s (R-N.Y.) parody of Ito--and D’Amato’s apology on the Senate floor--drew great response from the paper’s readers. And a piece on “O.J.'s Legal Pad"--a joke book that depicted what Simpson might be doodling during court sessions--angered many subscribers. The book contained offensive caricatures of Ito--referred to as “Hiro-Ito.”
“Because there is a high degree of respect for Judge Ito in the community, I think for him to be depicted in such a crass manner just pushed the buttons of our readers,” Hirahara said. “I mean, we were getting phone calls from people who were enraged.”
On the lighter side, Hirahara and reporter Martha Nakagawa came up with the idea to sponsor an Ito look-alike contest by having readers send in photographs.
“I had heard that some community leaders who happened to have beards were being stopped on the street and asked ‘Are you Judge Ito?’ and I thought that that was really funny because they were just Asians with beards,” Hirahara said.
The response was good with nearly 50 entries; there was a page featuring the winners, a front-page story about America’s fascination with the judge and another on the Dancing Itos from the “Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
Some readers, Hirahara said, were offended “because they felt Judge Ito is a man to be respected and somehow we were jumping on the bandwagon.
“But I just looked at it as an important mark in our history and something that should be documented. Judge Ito symbolizes a lot of things for Japanese Americans. He is more well-known than Newt Gingrich.”
According to La Opin~ion reporter Jose Ubaldo, his readers “want to know about how the rich people live, their private lives. They want to know more about everything regarding the case. We put the story on the front page most of the time unless something real important is going on in Mexico or Central America.”
Since the day of the murders, Ubaldo has been covering the story daily for the 120,000-circulation Spanish-language newspaper. La Opin~ion’s coverage, Ubaldo said, tends to mirror that of the mainstream press. “I have no special angle in covering the trial,” he said. “I am covering a crime and our readers, like readers everywhere, want the mystery to be resolved.”
On weekends he works as an assignment editor for Channel 34, KMEX-TV, the station that broke the story on Rosa Lopez, the Salvadoran housekeeper of Simpson’s neighbor. Ubaldo said he did clock extra hours on that story, and another reporter was assigned to help him.
“Every day I did a story on her--the readers couldn’t get enough,” he said. “Rosa Lopez made a mockery of herself. A lot of people, especially Salvadorans who wrote me and called me, believed this lady was lying. They felt sympathetic toward her but they also remembered how one day she is working like a maid and the next day she is living the high life staying in a hotel, wearing new dresses, arriving to court in a limousine.”
Tom Byun, senior editor for the 45,000-circulation Korea Times, a daily that publishes an English edition once a month, said his readers--as well as readers of newspapers in South Korea--are interested in the trial because “in South Korea there is no jury system. In Korea, the defendant must show his or her innocence. In America, the district attorney must show evidence of guilt.”
But, he added, “Many are sick and tired of the jury.”
Three times a week, Byun, who has unsuccessfully tried to get a seat in the courtroom, writes about the trial, often giving readers civic lessons on the workings of the American justice system.
Readers are also concerned--and worried--about the verdict, especially a guilty one.
Having experienced the L.A. riots, he said, they “worry about anger against their community” if Simpson is found guilty. “Please, don’t worry about that,” he tells readers and reassures callers.
At the Korean Central Daily, which has a circulation of 55,000, editor Young-Ah Ko translates stories that she finds on the Associated Press wire. On occasion a reporter will write a story--such as on DNA or the enormous cost of the trial--in response to a reader’s questions.
But for the most part Ko has limited coverage to profiles of courtroom players.
“My readers wanted to know about Johnnie Cochran because they see him so many times on TV and didn’t know much about him--and that boy, Kato, because he became celebrated,” she said.
And then there was Marcia Clark and her hairstyle make-over, which made the front page of the Korean Central Daily. That was big news, Ko said in all seriousness, because Clark is a role model to many Asian women.
“She is the leading prosecutor and many Asian women wish to be like her. They admire her for being smart and powerful and dynamic. In most Asian countries her job belongs to the man.”
The two leading Jewish weeklies locally, the B’nai B’rith Messenger, with a circulation of 30,000, and the 55,000-circulation Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, have tackled stories of special interest to their communities.
The Messenger has done stories on domestic violence in the Jewish community--long a taboo subject--and on the Jewish personalities in the case--both Clark and Shapiro have landed on the cover.
“We focused on domestic violence because there is so much denial about the problem in our culture and community,” said Messenger Editor Eileen Burk. “The O.J. angle made it more important and relevant to more people.”
The Messenger chose not to write about Ron Goldman because it did not want to invade the family’s privacy.
But the Jewish Journal’s Managing Editor and columnist Marlene Adler Marks said they did write about Goldman and his family “because they are Jewish” and because Goldman is “the other victim.”
“We haven’t made him into a celebrity, but we want to keep the sense of the victim in this case among the issues of justice,” Adler Marks said.
“The enormous corrosion of the justice system is on our readers’ minds and the sense of a personal major tragedy. Whose tragedy is this? Is it O.J.'s? Nicole’s? Ron Goldman’s? Right now the mainstream media is being exceptionally reactive. They are in the midst of the stream,” she said.
“But I see our role as stepping outside of the daily coverage of the case and to set the tone of ethical consideration of the issues concerning justice.”