The audience for traditional news media--daily newspapers and network television news shows in particular--has been fragmenting and declining for several years as readers and viewers have turned in growing numbers to other sources for their information and entertainment--to the Internet, to MTV, to videos, to interactive cable TV, to specialty magazines and newsletters.
In an effort to solidify their remaining base, and to attract newer, younger, often less sophisticated viewers, newspaper and television executives have increasingly allowed the blurring of longstanding distinctions between “reputable” mainstream news organizations and the scandal- and sensation-mongering tabloids of the supermarket and broadcast variety.
Less than four years ago, when these lines first began to seriously blur, the mainstream media generally picked up stories like Bill Clinton’s alleged love affair with Gennifer Flowers only after they were first reported by tabloids. But Flowers was only one of a series of tabloid stories that have slithered their way into the media mainstream in the past decade. Vide Erik and Lyle Menendez. Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. John and Lorena Bobbitt. Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco. William Kennedy Smith. Heidi Fleiss. Michael Jackson.
By the time Simpson case came along--"the Godzilla of tabloid stories,” in the words of James Willwerth of Time magazine--journalists were ready to plunge into the fray, to try to be first rather than rushing frantically to be second after having waited in stately silence while the tabloids broke the stories. When the tabloids clasped the Simpson story to their heaving journalistic bosoms, the mainstream media suddenly found themselves panting alongside--and not always winning the race against competitors far more experienced on this tricky and often treacherous terrain.
It was, after all, the supermarket Star and the syndicated television show “Hard Copy,” not the Los Angeles Times or CBS News, that first reported the contents of O.J. Simpson’s lengthy statement to police a few days after the murders.
“This is our turf,” said Diane Dimond, who reported that story and several other exclusives for “Hard Copy.” “We have sources in place, and they were activated the minute [the Simpson story broke].”
Tabloid reporters cultivate the bartenders and baby-sitters, the chambermaids and chauffeurs who are often privy to gossip and other newsworthy tidbits. Thus, the National Enquirer beat the Establishment media on several Simpson stories, and was praised for so doing by the New York Times.
“The Enquirer has probably shaped public perceptions of the case more than any other publication,” David Margolick wrote last October in the New York Times. “In a story made for the tabloids, it stands head and shoulders above them all for aggressiveness and accuracy.” The New York Times pointed out that the Enquirer had not published any of the “false reports” that were published and broadcast by many “respectable” news organizations in the first frantic weeks of the story.
Margolick was so impressed with the Enquirer’s performance on the Simpson story that two months later he quoted an Enquirer story that said an unidentified jail guard had overheard O.J. Simpson exclaim “I did it!” to Rosie Grier, the former football player-turned minister.
As the Times subsequently reported, “Some journalistic critics say the Times breached its own ethical standards by repeating information from an unnamed source in a supermarket tabloid that sometimes pays people for information.”
Margolick and his editors defended the reference to the Enquirer as necessary to explain that day’s court proceedings about the admissibility of the guard’s testimony. But the incident underscored, in a most ironic fashion, the degree to which the once-clear demarcation between the tabloids and the journalistic mainstream had been obscured.
The Enquirer, which was the first publication to report the New Year’s Day, 1989, fight between O.J. and Nicole Simpson, had up to 20 reporters assigned to the Simpson case at various times, and David Perel, general editor of the paper, said the Enquirer spent “a small fortune” looking--unsuccessfully--for possible suspects other than Simpson. Other tabloids, in print and on the air, also swarmed over the story and, like the Enquirer, produced exclusives of their own, the most recent being the Star’s publication this week of photographs from the party at Simpson’s house last Tuesday night celebrating his acquittal.
“When a tabloid does a good job and the mainstream media have to follow . . . people increasingly give them equal credibility,” said LAPD Deputy Police Chief David Gascon, echoing the concerns of many in the mainstream media.
When Newsweek quotes one of Simpson’s brothers as saying their father was gay, and says that Simpson was a womanizer who “indulged in drugs and casual sex,” should readers be expected to look on the National Enquirer as “sensational?”
When KCBS Channel 2 in Los Angeles introduces a report on the prosecution’s case by showing one computer-animated figure, an African American, slashing the throat of another computer-animated figure, a blond white woman, why should viewers be expected to disdainfully click their remote controls to avoid being exposed to “Hard Copy?”
The television magazine shows in particular morphed into network versions of the tabloid shows they routinely sneer at.
The tabloids--"Hard Copy,” “Inside Edition,” “A Current Affair” and “American Journal"--often do stories that justify derision, pursuing tear-jerking interviews with the families and friends of those caught up in a tragedy, for example. But it was “Eye to Eye With Connie Chung,” on CBS, that featured Simpson’s mother; “Dateline,” on NBC, interviewed O.J. Simpson’s two children from his first marriage; “PrimeTime Live” and “20/20,” both on ABC, interviewed the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman; Barbara Walters, also on ABC, interviewed O.J. Simpson’s personal assistant (and asked her if it was true that Simpson had said he’d lost his sexual desire for Nicole).
Most critics attack the tabloids because they pay for stories, a practice that invites questions about the motivation and credibility of some of their sources. After the controversy over its payment to potential witness Jill Shively, Ron Vandour, executive producer of “Hard Copy,” said the program re-evaluated its policy on paying sources and did not do it again on the Simpson case except for Faye Resnick, the self-described friend of Nicole Brown Simpson, whose book, “Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted,” forced Judge Lance A. Ito to suspend jury selection for a day and a half.
Vandour said he considered Resnick an “expert” commentator on the trial, much like Vincent Bugliosi, the former deputy district attorney and prosecutor of Charles Manson, whom “Hard Copy” also hired to provide commentary.
Vandour’s characterization of Resnick as an expert seems dubious at best, but it’s more difficult to dismiss a larger point he makes: that there may not be much difference between the money the tabloid shows pay and the ego gratification that network magazine shows offer when they induce sources to appear on nationwide television with Diane Sawyer or Walters or Chung. (Reporters who went to the home of the daughter of a juror Wednesday were prevented from seeing her when an ABC producer said she had agreed to speak exclusively to Sawyer.)
But whether the appeal is money or vanity, producers and reporters on tabloid TV shows say the most important question about a news source is not why the source is speaking but whether the reporter believes the source is telling the truth, or embellishing it to attract the highest (or most glamorous) bidder. This question is likely to be asked with some frequency in the days ahead as network producers besiege jurors with limousines, flowers and big-name interviewers while tabloid producers jockey for interviews with the jurors, reportedly offering up to $100,000 for exclusivity.
Although some mainstream media were often indistinguishable from their tabloid brethren on the Simpson case, the tabloids, for all their newfound status as real players in the media game, didn’t suddenly become the Wall Street Journal.
Mainstream news organizations--broadcast and print--generally have standards on sourcing and credibility, on the use of rumors and gossip, standards that often seem nonexistent at most of the tabloids.
In many cases, along with their genuine scoops--often in the same issue or on the same program--the tabloids offered their usual diet of gossip and sensationalism: misleading headlines and photographs; tantalizing accounts from anonymous sources; unconfirmable or contrived stories; tales about a mystery prosecution witness who never appeared, about plea bargaining that both sides said never took place, about “proof” that Simpson was guilty (or innocent) and about a host of bizarre plots, alleged romantic entanglements and confrontations and purported “inside” accounts of what all the principals are doing and thinking.
About all that the tabloids haven’t offered--so far--is a story based on a posthumous interview in which the victims positively identify their killer.
On the same day last month that the National Enquirer reported that Simpson’s girlfriend Paula Barbieri was allegedly so afraid of Simpson that she was “fleeing to a hide-out in France,” the Star reported that Simpson was planning to marry Barbieri and live with her in a “luxury hideaway” in Mexico.
The excesses of the tabloids notwithstanding, most reporters who covered the case said they couldn’t ignore them--the National Enquirer in particular--without worrying that they would miss something important. John North of KABC Channel 7 said he was so embarrassed to be seen with the Enquirer that at first, “my wife would go to the grocery store for me” and buy it. But he said he frequently found himself “chasing things that they broke. Everybody was.”
In part because of the influence of the tabloids--and in part because of the nature of the story itself--many news organizations developed an almost schizophrenic approach to the Simpson case. Last March, for example, the New Yorker published Jeffrey Toobin’s thoughtful examination of Judge Ito’s judicial philosophy; the next week, the New Yorker published 16 pages of photographs of principals in the Simpson case, including a two-page spread of the world’s first celebrity house guest, Brian (Kato) Kaelin, stripped to the waist, blow-drying his hair, and another two-page spread of Simpson girlfriend Barbieri sprawled languorously on a sofa, wearing only a shirt, with one nipple peeking out from a shirt unbuttoned to just above her navel.
“When a tabloid tornado begins to spin . . . even the best among us, with the best of intentions, tend to get caught up in it,” Dan Rather said, “and the standards that we would normally apply to almost any other story, first . . . get under stress and pressure, then a few hairline cracks begin developing, and then the hairline cracks begin to be big cracks, then--before you know it--your standards have just broken open and you’re not applying the same rules that you do to other stories. And that by and large is what’s happened here.”
Rather’s own CBS “Evening News” succumbed to that stress and pressure from time to time, too.
On Aug. 4, seven weeks before jury selection for the trial began and almost six months before the first opening argument, Chung, then Rather’s co-anchor, opened the broadcast by announcing “the latest exclusive information on the defense strategy":
“It appears tonight that we will get to hear O.J. Simpson’s side of the story in his own words, under oath. According to sources, the defense plans to have Simpson testify at his trial.”
But anyone with even the barest knowledge of the criminal justice process knows that such a decision is not made until the very end of the defense case.
“If they didn’t know that it was totally ridiculous, they should have,” said Fred Graham, who helped anchor Court TV’s coverage of the Simpson trial after having spent 15 years reporting on legal matters for CBS News, “I just hung my head that CBS would lead its program with that story.”
But most reporters and editors directly involved in coverage of the Simpson case insist that despite some instances of tabloidization, especially in the beginning, the mainstream media have largely done a careful, responsible job on the story, and especially on the trial, given the pressures of daily deadlines and intense competition.
“I think the reporting on this has been damn good,” Dominick Dunne said. “I think it has been very fair.”
Although much of the coverage of the case, both before the trial and outside the courtroom, has been sensationalized and splashy, reporting on the trial itself was “the absolute, very best that I’ve seen on any major, high-publicity trial that I’ve been exposed to,” said Ira Reiner, the former district attorney of Los Angeles County, who was a legal analyst for ABC during the Simpson trial. “I’ve never seen such accurate reporting.”
One reason may be that a large number of reporters assigned to the case have law degrees, among them Cynthia McFadden of ABC, Jack Ford of NBC, Harvey Levin of KCBS Channel 2, David Margolick of the New York Times, Henry Weinstein of the Los Angeles Times, Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker, Jim Moret of CNN and five of the six primary Court TV reporters on the case.
In principle, critics may well be right that the Simpson case is ultimately just another celebrity murder case, made to order for the supermarket tabloids and unworthy of the saturation coverage it has received in the mainstream media. But television ratings, public opinion polls and scores of interviews, combined with personal conversations and observation over the past several months, make it incontrovertibly clear that a great many people are riveted by the story, their demands for more “serious” news and their complaints about “too much coverage of Simpson” notwithstanding.
When ABC cut away from coverage of Simpson’s preliminary hearing in July, 1994, and returned to its regular programming, the ratings dropped instantly. On several occasions when CNN left various Simpson proceedings to cover other important events, phones at CNN headquarters in Atlanta jumped off the hook with calls from outraged viewers.
Given this reaction, Reiner said, it’s wrong to accuse the media of giving the Simpson case too much coverage. “The amount of media attention has been pretty much equivalent to the amount of public interest . . . utterly appropriate,” he said. “This is not a case of the media beating the drums and building up a lot of interest . . . that didn’t exist.”
Nowhere was interest in the Simpson case higher than in Los Angeles. The Simpson story is truly, ultimately a Los Angeles story. The crime, arrest and trial all occurred here. The victims lived here. So do the defendant and virtually all the central players.
Many restaurants reported lunchtime slumps in business during high points in the trial as people sat immobilized in front of their television sets. Tourists flocked to Los Angeles to seek seats in the courtroom, to take a Graveline Tours visit to key sites in the case and to buy Simpson watches, T-shirts, buttons, trading cards, coffee mugs, pencils and other souvenirs sold outside the courthouse.
It was only fitting that media coverage of the case would be the heaviest here. It was like a large pot of improvisational stew, constantly being stirred, with new ingredients tossed in almost daily.
In Los Angeles, said Jessica Seigel of the Chicago Tribune, constant television coverage “hyped up public interest,” which hyped up the interest of the local print press, “so that it all sort of feeds back into itself.”
(According to a Los Angeles Times poll taken last week, 45% of the people in Los Angeles County thought they got their “best information” on the Simpson trial from local television. Thirty-eight percent said they got their best trial information from daily newspapers, 35% from network television.)
Before the trial began, general managers from the city’s local television stations met to see if they could work out a plan of rotating coverage so they wouldn’t all have to preempt their regular programming all day, every day, to show the same thing--The Trial.
“We could not agree on a rotation because people basically couldn’t promise that on a day that got really exciting, even it if wasn’t their day, that they wouldn’t want to break in,” said Rick Feldman, general manager of KCOP Channel 13.
When the trial began, every local Los Angeles station but Channel 13 carried it live. Gradually, all but Channel 5 dropped out. (KNX radio also carried it live throughout.) But various stations provided hourly trial bulletins during the day; Channels 4, 9 and 13 provided nightly wrap-ups (as did CNN, Court TV and CNBC nationally), and all L.A. local stations except Channel 13 provided complete, live coverage of the closing arguments.
On Sept. 29, when the closing defense argument coincided with the signing of a historic accord that transferred most of the West Bank from Israeli to Arab control, not one Los Angeles television station broke away from the trial to cover the signing ceremony with onetime bitter foes Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Throughout the trial, the Simpson case was the lead story on Los Angeles TV newscasts with such regularity that even the reporters covering the story were often astonished at the air time they were given.
At the Los Angeles Times, the Simpson story has been on Page 1 more than 300 days since the murders. During the trial, The Times published a Simpson story on Page 1 the morning after every court day except five from the beginning of opening statements Jan. 24 through the announcement of the verdicts last Tuesday--even on days when some of the reporters covering the story didn’t think it warranted that prominent play. This week, The Times is publishing four special sections (including this one) on the Simpson case.
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Blurring the Lines
The lines between the mainstream news media and the tabloids--print and television--have been blurring for several years, but in the Simpson case, the overlap was greater than ever. The New Yorker published a 16-page photo spread--including two pates each on Kato kaelin and Simpson’s scantily clad girlfriend Paula Barbieri--while the National Enquirer was praised early on by the New York Times as having “probably shaped public perceptions of the case more than any other publication.”