THE O.J. SIMPSON MURDER TRIAL : Viewing the Case Through a Racial Lens
From the very beginning, Dennis Schatzman has made race a running theme in his coverage of the O.J. Simpson case for the Los Angeles Sentinel, a weekly paper serving the African American community. But his uncompromising voice reaches far beyond the Southland with his pieces appearing in black papers across the country.
As Schatzman sees it, race is inescapable in American life. “You can’t get around it,” he says.
Consider the events of Wednesday when two African American attorneys, Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden and chief defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., argued over whether a voice sounding like that of a black man was heard at Nicole Brown Simpson’s condo around the time of her murder. In the end, both men found themselves not arguing about the facts of the case but about race.
This week, Schatzman’s point of view is receiving national exposure in a profile of him and the black press in the current issue of the New Yorker and in a story on the cover of today’s Times Life & Style section.
“As the case lurches toward conclusion, the racial divisions endure,” wrote the author, Jeffrey Toobin.
“And nowhere can these divisions be seen more starkly than in the radically different perspectives offered by the predominantly white mass media and the tiny but vocal and highly opinionated black press.”
Tuesday afternoon, I drove over to the Sentinel office on Crenshaw Boulevard to interview Schatzman.
As always, he was a powerful, dominating presence in a conversation. I’ve been on two panels with him, one at USC and the other at Caltech, and each time he has been the star, relegating the rest of us to supporting roles.
His shirt was brightly colored, reflective of the African attire he often wears. His slight frame recalls his days as a member of the University of Pittsburgh mile relay team.
As he did when I’d first interviewed him a couple of years ago, Schatzman handed me a copy of a 1990 column by William Rasberry in the Washington Post. Rasberry told how Schatzman was shot on a Washington, D.C., street in 1990. Rasberry, a Schatzman friend and fellow member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, wrote that the badly injured Schatzman was broke and couldn’t pay his hospital bill. The column prompted enough donations to cover expenses, and Schatzman recovered.
Schatzman told Toobin a postscript to the story: “I found the guy who shot me, and I busted two slugs in his ass.” When Toobin asked Schatzman why he would admit the shooting, the reporter said, “I ain’t ashamed to talk about it, and anyway I don’t think I’m going to live that long. I’ve got this kind of stomach cancer. It’s a family thing. I figure maybe I’ve got two years.”
We talked about the influence Schatzman has as a reporter for a paper whose circulation he said is only about 30,000.
Part of it is because his stories are syndicated to black papers around the country.
A lot of it comes from his journalistic style. Schatzman is an advocate as well as a reporter, letting his personal beliefs and experiences, as well as the facts, shape his stories. This separates him from mainstream reporters, white as well as minority.
“If you are going to be a good journalist, you have to be open-minded and strive for objectivity,” Schatzman said. That’s true at the Sentinel, as well as other papers, he said. But at the Sentinel he can also push his causes and spotlight issues that the mainstream plays down or ignores.
Schatzman said the Tommy Lasorda-Chad Fonville head rubbing incident illustrated what he was talking about. In late June, Dodger manager Lasorda removed the cap of Fonville, a young African American infielder, during a rally. Then Lasorda rubbed Fonville’s head and kissed the top of it.
To some, that was a display of the Lasorda Dodger Blue spirit. But Schatzman wrote that the act of a white man rubbing a black man’s head was a racial insult.
Advocacy journalism, however, can also be irresponsible. After truck driver Reginald Denny was almost beaten to death during the riots, Schatzman wrote that some people told him Denny may have provoked the attack by making racially provocative remarks. Nothing to support this came out in the investigations of the beating or in the trial of the men accused of beating Denny.
It is true that Schatzman is sometimes guilty of “excess,” and “sometimes gets a little carried away and goes overboard in the advocacy role,” said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League and one of the African American community’s most prominent leaders.
“But that is what happens when you have a crusading reporter,” Mack said.
“The importance of his reporting is that it provides another perspective,” Mack said. “It balances out the equation.”
That’s why Mack advises all O.J. junkies, of any racial background, to read the Sentinel. It’s on the newsstands today.