A murderer rose in court and confessed under duress to Raymond Burr ("I didn't mean to kill her") in an old "Perry Mason" episode Tuesday morning on cable's TBS network. Moments later, another televised drama ran its course in a real courtroom.
Yes, it's true that television made the not guilty verdicts that freed O.J. Simpson a tingly, electrifying moment never to be forgotten, climaxing a TV drum roll that began that morning even before dawn on at least half a dozen Los Angeles channels.
How big was this story? So big that the likes of Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric of NBC jetted in from New York. So big that the police had to impose crowd control measures outside the courthouse just to harness the hordes of media hanging around. So big that even that PBS hoity-toity, "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," led with it on PBS Tuesday after spending the last 18 months pretending not to know Simpson from Shmimpson.
"It all comes down to this," KTTV-TV Channel 11 anchor John Beard said as the jury's verdicts were about to be read: Not guilty in the murders of both Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
Ranging from euphoria to despair, responses inside the courtroom were almost too intense to fully comprehend other than viscerally. This epicenter of conflicting passions was something to behold. As was Simpson's joyous sister, Shirley Baker, saying later that she felt like "dancin' and jiggin'. " And disappointed Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden, so overcome by emotion at a prosecution news conference that he aborted his remarks sobbing.
Can't beat those pictures.
Yet these are the Dark Ages of the media, the epoch of their intellectual stagnation, widespread ignorance and poverty of spirit.
The Simpsonizing of TV news in the mid-'90s affirms that the people going into the business are dumber and dumber, the people directing them are dumber and dumber and, as a consequence, the public is dumber and dumber.
Except about the O.J. Simpson case. We know everything about that.
If these protectors of the airwaves would invest in their coverage of other news the same energy, resources and commitment they continue to apply to the Simpson case, we'd be much smarter about ourselves and the world around us. Instead we are getting telecoptered, skycammed, team covered, live stand-upped and exclusived into a state of mental numbness, TV news having found a way to shrink the brain as if it were a malignant tumor.
And the more things remain the same, the more comfortable with them we become. And the more desensitized to what we are receiving.
It couldn't get worse. Yet it gnaws at you that it will, that 20 years from now things will have gotten so bad that Americans will recall the Simpson period of 1994-95 as the golden age of journalism, as many now look back with misty nostalgia at the era of Edward R. Murrow.
A political analogy works here: Someone once suggested that much campaign time and money could be saved by presidential candidates stumping through Iowa in search of votes in the Iowa caucuses if a facade of a typical farm were constructed at the Des Moines airport. Candidates could fly in, give their standard agricultural speech in front of the farm backdrop, then immediately fly out.
That came to mind Monday night as I drove by the Agoura Hills home of the Goldman family to get a glimpse of the comedians outside. It was 10:30 p.m., and I counted nine TV vans or trucks outside, even though family members that day had said they would have no comments about the astonishing speed with which the jury had reached a meeting of the minds. Through a spokesman, they asked the media to leave "so they can be alone with their thoughts." Get real.
A female reporter stood in the street, a TV light on her while doing a live stand-up with the house in the background. The house was a prop; the Goldmans inside were a prop. You could argue even that the reporter was a prop.
At 6:58 a.m. Tuesday, moreover, KNBC-TV Channel 4's Kelly Mack was in front of the Goldman house saying that Fred Goldman's request for "a little privacy now" was "certainly something we can all understand." Love that empathy--except that during Mack's report, Goldman and his daughter, Kim, were shown on tape emerging from their garage and getting into their van for the ride Downtown to the courthouse. A Channel 4 camera had snooped on them at 6 a.m.
It was pointless, as was the way some media spread across Los Angeles on Tuesday like creepy zombies in "Night of the Living Dead"--mindless, but relentlessly moving forward in their quest to elicit eleventh-hour predictions about the verdicts from everyone they could grab.
At his televised 8 a.m. news conference, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti was asked to speculate on the verdicts. "We'll know in two hours," he replied. He was peppered with questions anyway.
"What does your gut say to you?" attorney Leo Terrell was asked on Channel 11 by Susan Lichtman. His gut wasn't saying much, but as late as 9:50--10 minutes before the verdicts were scheduled to be read--reporters at some stations were still looking for Los Angelenos to handicap the verdicts.
After they were read in court shortly after 10, choppers flew the Los Angeles skies above a white van that on this day was carrying O.J. Simpson to freedom, then later hovered above his Brentwood estate as members of the media clumped outside. Slews of reporters began their camp-outs at the homes of jurors, patrolling neighborhoods and snaring neighbors in lieu of refusals by jurors to speak about their verdict.
And Mack and other reporters were at Camp Goldman, in position to report the family's return home after the day that Fred Goldman earlier had tearfully described as a nightmare. She reported later from somewhere else, explaining that the Goldman family had asked reporters to leave.
Earlier, someone outside the courthouse had responded to the not guilty verdict by telling Channel 2's Linda Alvarez: "There's still a maniac out there." The maniac is the media.