Police, prosecutors and sources close to them struck first in the media wars that immediately enveloped the O.J. Simpson murder case. Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Simpson's lead attorney, would later charge that the publication and broadcast of stories about evidence purporting to link the former football star to the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman amounted to "orchestrated leaks" designed to prejudice the public and potential jurors against Simpson.
Simpson's defense team was also outraged by the release, less than two weeks after the murders, of tapes of Nicole Brown Simpson's emergency calls to 911. On those tapes--which were broadcast on radio and television and quoted in newspapers--a man identified as Simpson could be heard screaming obscenities after kicking in the door of his ex-wife's home.
Stryker McGuire, West Coast editor for Newsweek, said the early leaks--which helped shape public perceptions and legal strategy within days of the murders--were a clear indication that police and prosectors realized how difficult it could be to convict a defendant as popular as Simpson.
But it didn't take long for Simpson's defense team to strike back.
A "massive defense publicity machine [began] . . . generating material . . . in Simpson's favor" to counter these leaks very early, said Peter Arenella, a UCLA law professor who was an expert analyst on the trial for ABC News and KTLA Channel 5 and a daily contributor to the Los Angeles Times' "Legal Pad" analysis of the case.
Then, more than two months before the start of jury selection in the Simpson case, and six months before jury sequestration, several news organizations picked up stories originally reported by the New Yorker and Newsweek magazines that said the defense intended to make an issue of the racist attitudes of Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman.
The spinning began in earnest.
For the next year-plus, using news conferences, leaks and courtroom tactics, the defense was "masterful, brilliant at manipulation" of the media and the jury, said Greg Jarrett, who helped anchor Court TV's coverage of the trial and who, like everyone else quoted in this story, was interviewed in the weeks and months before the jury acquitted Simpson last Tuesday. (By design, this story was essentially written before the jury verdict as well.)
"We were as much a tool and a conduit for each side as we were an investigating arm of our own individual organizations," said Jim Moret, who anchored CNN's trial coverage.
The spinning in the Simpson case became so egregious that the California Supreme Court recently enacted a rule restricting the comments that attorneys in any case can make outside the courtroom. The rule took effect two days before Simpson was acquitted.
The Simpson case has implications for the criminal justice system and for the future of race relations in this country that are likely to be debated for some time. But from beginning to end, the news media--the newspaper and television reporters, the magazine writers and the book authors--were often as central to the case as were the attorneys and investigators on both sides. Indeed, Judge Cecil Mills, the supervising judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, took the extraordinary step of stripping the grand jury of its authority in the Simpson case after the media gave widespread attention to the 911 tapes.
The media's involvement in the Simpson case, as both players and chroniclers, as pursuers of news and as pawns of the legal spinmeisters, guarantees that their performance will also be a subject of comment and controversy for years to come.
Were people fascinated by the Simpson case because of its many resonant chords--race, celebrity, wealth, violence--or because the media pandered to their basest instincts by filling their waking hours with story after story after story, until they were either hooked or too numb to resist--or both? Have the mainstream, (largely) responsible media become indistinguishable from the supermarket and television tabloids? Could early reporting on the case have jeopardized Simpson's right to a fair trial? Did the predominantly white news media inaccurately portray African American attitudes toward Simpson? Did the widespread assumption of Simpson's guilt among predominantly white reporters, editors and television news directors influence coverage? Did the cameras in the courtroom needlessly prolong the trial?
One thing is already clear: However unwittingly at times, the media played a pivotal role in this most bizarre drama.
There is little doubt, for example, that the defense made several courtroom presentations knowing that even if Judge Lance A. Ito refused to allow the jury to hear them, the media would report them and the families of the jurors would see and hear and read about them. Although Judge Ito said every day, several times a day, that jurors should not allow anyone to communicate with them about the case, the jurors had twice-weekly visits with their families; it wasn't difficult to imagine more than one spouse passing along a particularly provocative bit of news that Ito had ruled inadmissible--say, the racist boasts by Fuhrman that he had manufactured evidence.
Only the jurors and their families know if pillow talk during conjugal visits had any impact on the jury's ultimate verdict. So far, all indications are that it did not. But it was apparent from the beginning that defense attorneys were trying two cases simultaneously, one in Judge Ito's courtroom and one, through the news media, in the court of public opinion.
The latter was intended not only to influence the family members of current jurors but also to rehabilitate Simpson and ease his return to the outside world if he were acquitted and to influence potential jurors if a hung jury required a second trial.
Many critics argued that the very presence of cameras in the courtroom could influence future jurors, if any were needed. They also complained that the cameras encouraged the lawyers and the judge to say and do things they otherwise would have avoided. According to this theory--hotly disputed in some quarters--the cameras needlessly prolonged the trial and disillusioned the public about the criminal justice process in general.
David Bloom, who covered the Simpson case for the "NBC Nightly News," said media coverage "unquestionably" had an effect on the trial in at least one other regard: Some witnesses may have refused to testify because they did not want to be subjected to intense media scrutiny, while others came forward precisely because they wanted media attention.
One potentially crucial prosecution witness was deemed to have lost her credibility after she sold her story for $5,000 to "Hard Copy," a syndicated television show. Jill Shively, who told prosecutors and the grand jury that she had seen an enraged O.J. Simpson driving near his ex-wife's home with his headlights out about the time she and Goldman were killed, was never called to testify in the trial.
In the crazed final weeks of the trial, the media were at least indirectly responsible for several potentially important witnesses for both sides coming forward to testify. FBI Agent Michael Wacks was such a witness. Wacks was subpoenaed by the defense after he belatedly told his supervisor about a conversation he'd had with a key LAPD detective involved in the search of Simpson's home in the hours after the murders. Why had Wacks come forward? He wanted to give his own account of what had been said before the story could be distorted.
"I was afraid the media were going to make a big deal" out of it, he said on the witness stand.
In the beginning:
Almost from the moment the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were discovered, news media from around the world fixated on the story. Police pursuit of O.J. Simpson locked millions of Americans into a common emotional experience.
By the end of the trial, 1,159 reportes had been credentialed to cover it and almost 80 miles of cable had been run for television crews. When the verdict was announced, American stood still for 10 minutes. More than 100 million viewers tuned in.