John North and Harvey Levin are two of the most highly regarded local television reporters in Los Angeles. Both still cringe when they talk about the frenzy, the near-panic, that propelled virtually everyone's coverage in the early weeks of the Simpson case.
"The worst thing that's ever happened in my career," Levin said, "was I would come into the station at 9 in the morning and they [his executive producers at KCBS Channel 2] would say to me, 'You're leading every newscast' . . . before I had a story."
Levin said he was expected to go on the air live, several times a day, not simply to report the routine, official developments in the rapidly unfolding Simpson case but to "break" stories, to get stories before any other reporter did. "It was lunacy at the beginning," he said. "I think there was a general lack of quality control. . . . I was getting physically sick . . . putting in insane hours. . . . I would probably get my first beep at around 6-6:30 in the morning and I'd work past midnight every day."
North's pace was similarly frenetic, and his experience at KABC Channel 7 similarly unsettling. "I was told every day that I'd lead the news," North recalls. "There would be literally nothing happening and I'd do two or three stories a day. I'd have to go out and find someone who would say that something might happen the next day [so I'd have a story]."
Amid this stampede, errors were inevitable.
"Early on, we all made mistakes we shouldn't have made because it was so competitive, and we were rushing around so much, trying to beat each other, especially local television, trying to get the so-called 'exclusives,' " North said.
Levin has always been one of the more colorful and controversial journalists in Los Angeles television. He's an aggressive reporter who breaks important investigative stories, but--like many in local TV news--he can also succumb to hype and theatrics. On the Simpson story, Levin hyperventilated his way into a big mistake, what he now calls "an internal, mechanical, royal screw-up . . . the worst experience" he ever had.
On July 13, 1994, exactly one month after the discovery of the bodies of the two murder victims, Levin reported that prosecutor Marcia Clark had arrived at Simpson's home in the hours after the murder, before a judge had signed a search warrant for the property. Levin based his report on a time code that indicated a KCBS videotape of Clark's arrival had been filed from the scene at 10:28 on the day of the search; the search warrant hadn't been signed until 10:45 a.m.
But it turned out that the tape had been fed to the station from its satellite truck at 10:28 p.m. , well after Clark's arrival at Simpson's home and almost 12 hours after the search warrant had been signed.
Levin said the mistake occurred because he had been misled about the time code system on the particular machine used that night. But it was he who "broke" the original story, and it was he who had to retract the story, on the air, three times in one day.
Although still pained by his blunder, Levin said he's proud of his overall work on the Simpson story, and he eagerly ticked off several accurate stories he did break, as well as an even larger number of erroneous stories that other news media used but that he refused to broadcast because they seemed of dubious credibility and he couldn't confirm them independently.
Almost every reporter on the Simpson case can also cite the "bad" stories he or she refused to report because they didn't meet the reporter's (or the media organization's) standards. But many false stories did find their way into print and onto the airwaves, especially in the tumultuous early weeks of the case, when there was so much competitive pressure that "the desperation . . . was a tangible thing" among reporters, said David Gascon, the LAPD press relations officer in the first months of the Simpson case. "Many reporters I dealt with seemed to have lost their compass."
The frenzy continued virtually throughout the Simpson case, with only a slight lull during some of the important but often dull scientific testimony, and it reached comic-opera crescendos with two jury pursuits. The first came last spring, when reporters rushed all over town chasing down several of the 10 ousted Simpson jurors in an effort to get the "inside story" on what they thought about the case (which wasn't even half-over) and about the views of their fellow jurors (who wouldn't begin formal deliberations for another five months). The second pursuit began almost as soon as the verdicts were announced last week, when reporters and TV producers began beseeching and bombarding jurors in a fiercely determined quest to find out What Really Happened in the Jury Room.
But the most harried, hurried media coverage of the Simpson trial took place in those first days and weeks after the murders, and in this pressure cooker:
- CNN, KCBS, KNBC and KTLA all reported that there was a possible second suspect in the case.
- KCOP Channel 13 reported that a bloody ski mask had been found at the murder scene.
- The Daily News of Los Angeles reported that police had found a "bloodstained military-style entrenching tool . . . believed to have been the weapon used in the killings."
- CNN quoted an anonymous source as saying bloody clothes had been found in the washing machine at O.J. Simpson's home.
- KCBS and NBC quoted sources as saying Simpson had his hand in a golf bag on the plane trip from Los Angeles to Chicago after the murders.
- KCBS reported the "bombshell" news that police had discovered potentially damaging evidence in Simpson's golf bag.
- Various news organizations reported that blood had been found on the golf bag that Simpson took to Chicago after the murders.
Many other news organizations repeated some of these stories, with or without credit to the original source, and this is by no means a complete catalogue of erroneous stories--stories that Charles Ogletree Jr. of Harvard Law School said represented "not only carelessness but a callous disregard for accuracy."
"Journalists started relying on other journalists for information," said Gregg Jarrett of Court TV. " 'NBC is reporting that ABC is reporting that . . . blah-blah-blah is happening.' . . . They were going with unnamed, undisclosed sources, without one or two corroborating sources. That's wrong, and it was rampant in the beginning."
A few news organizations tried to avoid the echo chamber of errors by refusing to use any story that their own reporters could not confirm. They worried, in particular, about laundering into the mainstream and thus legitimizing some stories in the tabloids that may have been paid for or that derived from dubious sources. But they didn't use stories broken by other mainstream media either. No "CNN reported" or "CBS said Tuesday night." The only stories they used were those they got from their own sources.
The Los Angeles Times adopted such a policy, and since The Times devoted more resources and space to the Simpson story than did any other newspaper, the policy opened The Times to charges that it was being "arrogant" and "ungenerous."
The Times has been "extremely stingy in acknowledging other people's contributions," said David Margolick, who covered the Simpson trial for the New York Times. "They pretend basically that no one else is covering it."
Levin said he thought it was "shameful" that when "Hard Copy' broadcast its tape of O.J. Simpson's statement to police, The Times ignored both it and the tabloid Star's transcript of the statement.
Jim Newton, the lead reporter and writer on the Simpson case for The Times, said he wishes The Times had gotten the story on Simpson's statement first, but he said he couldn't independently confirm the legitimacy of the tape or the transcript and he didn't feel comfortable enough about the reliability and reporting standards of the tabloids to use the story and attribute it to them.
"There may be a perception of a lack of generosity on our part, and I would understand that," Newton said, but The Times was determined not to "repeat information we couldn't verify ourselves. This whole case was riddled with mistakes in reporting from the word 'go' and I didn't see how we could, in good conscience, trust other peoples' sources over our own."
Because the Simpson case was a local Los Angeles story, The Times had excellent sources from the beginning and it broke many stories, especially in the early days of the case. But whenever another news organization reported a story first, Times reporters would go to their own sources and then attribute the information to those sources, without also crediting the news organizaion that initially reported it. Although this policy earned the paper the enmity of some of its competitors, and kept it from immediately matching some scoops by those competitors, Newton and others at The Times said that their only concern was to avoid making the kinds of errors that so many other news organizations did.
"No one here wanted to learn about a significant development in the case" from any other media, Newton said, so there was "a lot of pressure" to match some of the early stories in other media that ultimately proved erroneous. But Newton said, "There was really an abiding pressure not to make a mistake."
When the news stories about a "second suspect" began circulating, Times editors wanted Newton to try to match it. He felt similar pressure three months later, when KNBC Channel 4 erroneously reported that a particularly sophisticated blood test conducted at a Maryland laboratory indicated that the blood found on socks in O.J. Simpson's bedroom matched that of Nicole Brown Simpson.
But Newton said that every editor who told him to match those stories also told him to make sure they were true. They weren't, so he didn't write them.
"We felt it was our story, and we didn't want anybody to take it away from us," said Metropolitan Editor Leo Wolinsky. "At the same, we really felt the sense that we were the Bible here. That came to us very early because in those first days after the murders, we were getting calls from newspapers all over the country who were afraid to do anything without seeing what we were doing first."
That intensified the paper's determination to be careful.
"We didn't want to tabloidize this thing," Wolinsky said.
But when reports of the bloody entrenching tool surfaced, Wolinsky said, "it made my stomach tie into a knot. The Daily News. It could have been right. Who knows. Why the hell did they get this and we didn't?" He was upset that another local newspaper had seemingly beaten The Times on a big story--the discovery of the murder weapon.
Wolinsky says he went to City Editor Joel Sappell and they went to Newton and said, "What's going on here?"
Newton said his sources told him the story was erroneous.
They were right and again, his editors listened to him. His track record, combined with the plague of misinformation increasingly infecting the media environment, made it easier for him to resist the pressure.
As the Simpson story mushroomed, Wolinsky and his staff grudgingly came to the realization that "other people were getting legitimate scoops." There was so much media firepower concentrated on the story from every angle that there was no way any one news organization could "own" it, not even The Times, with its large staff, massive commitment and home-field advantage.
Most reporters are intensely competitive, and on a big, breaking story like this one, they battle one another for every scrap of information--and they keep mental box scores on which reporters got which story first, even when many of these "exclusives" are clearly on the periphery of the case. Within days of the murders, reporters were trumpeting their exclusives, and most reporters who were interviewed for this Simpson media retrospective not only mentioned these exclusives but were eager to praise competitors for theirs.
The reporter whom other reporters most often credited with breaking stories over the course of the long case was Michelle Caruso of the New York Daily News (who also seemed to have the most encyclopedic knowledge of the case of anyone in the press corps). Reporters also applauded Art Harris of CNN, Cynthia McFadden of ABC News, Mark Miller of Newsweek and Dan Abrams of Court TV for getting a number of stories before anyone else.
But in the very beginning, it was Newton who dictated the tone of the coverage. He wrote 19 Page 1 stories in the first month after the murders, several of them disclosing information that became the heart of the prosecution's case.
Deputy Chief Gascon said Newton repeatedly "amazed" him in the early days of the case with the speed and accuracy of the information he got. "Newton would get on something . . . and he would come to me . . . and say 'I want to ask you about this.' I'd give him my usual routine--nothing. And then he comes back in a while and somehow he's got this information. Besides shaking my head about how he could do that so quickly, I'm shaking my head about how he's got sources that can come up with these things."
Newton, who had covered the LAPD for a year preceding the murders, played a major role in the competitive panic among other local media, Gascon said. Reporters would call and complain that Newton was "killing" them and they would beg Gascon to give them information for their own stories. Some reporters, he said, complained that if he didn't help them, they would lose their jobs.
The Times teamed various reporters with Newton and assigned others to different aspects of the snowballing story, and by the Wednesday after the Sunday night murders, a Times story by Newton and Eric Malnic said, "Mounting evidence links . . . Simpson to the brutal slayings."
In this and subsequent stories, The Times detailed the evidence:
- "A bloodstained glove found at Simpson's mansion matches one discovered near the bodies at his ex-wife's townhouse."
- Bloodstains had been found in Simpson's car, at his home and at his ex-wife's townhouse.
- The blood found at the murder scene was of a type that "matches" O.J. Simpson's blood.
Although many journalists were envious of these stories, many lawyers and law professors had a decidedly different perspective.
Karen Smith of Southwestern University said her first reaction to the early Times stories was "horror." To her, it seemed as if The Times was "in league with the district attorney or the LAPD . . . in trying to convince the public that Simpson was guilty. "I thought this was almost a lynch mob mentality, although not presented in an emotional way," Smith said.
Tabloids and some other news media were emotional. They breathlessly seized on disclosures in The Times and other news organs and virtually did lynch, or at least convict, Simpson. "Long before O.J. Simpson was accused of murder, fame had turned him into a monster," Randall Sullivan wrote in Rolling Stone a month before the trial began. "So why do millions of Americans refuse to see the truth?"
Should the media disclose the details of a developing case against a criminal defendant before he has even been arrested?
It's easy to second-guess media coverage done under enormous pressure and to say that journalists should always have a defendant's rights in mind when writing a story about a legal case. Journalists should realize, said attorney Gerald Chaleff, that there is "no social value" in telling the public about physical evidence in a criminal case a few weeks or months before everyone will hear it in court."
But most reporters don't want to wait for disclosures in official forums. To them, news is what they know today, this minute. By instinct and training, they want to report what they know as soon as they know it. Historians can wait to analyze and resolve all the conflicting facts and theories in a given situation; traditionally, the role of the journalist, writing what has often been called the first, rough draft of history, is to report what he knows as soon as he can confirm it from sources that have proved reliable in the past. The test, reporters say, is whether the story is correct, not whether it might be premature--or prejudicial.
"My feeling is that to the extent what we're reporting is accurate, chances of jeopardizing his right to a fair trial are very slim," Newton said, although he acknowledged that it's "legitimate" to raise the fair trial question.
Some accurate information may ultimately be ruled inadmissible in court, as Newton conceded. Or it may be based on planted or tainted or mishandled evidence, as the defense charged in the Simpson case. In either situation, publishing or broadcasting such "accurate" information, before jury selection and sequestration, could ultimately influence potential jurors, at least subconsciously.
But Times editors say they found themselves in an uncomfortable position in the first few days after the murders: The LAPD was publicly declining to identify Simpson as a suspect, while police sources were telling The Times he was the suspect.
"We realized that being the Los Angeles Times, being that it happened here, that what we reported would make a huge difference nationally in how this story played," Wolinsky said. "I remember being kind of nervous about that."
Editors weren't thinking about a possible trial and Simpson's rights at that time, Wolinsky says. They were thinking about "a real big murder case, mysterious, potentially explosive. . . . The public was, not surprisingly, confused. They bring a man in. They handcuff him. The police say he's not a suspect. My feeling was we have a greater responsibility now to say what's going . . . to come out with this information. "
Chaleff, however, said coverage is sometimes driven less by "the public's desire to know" than by "the press' desire to tell all this so they can have a story, [get] ratings, [sell] more papers."
The competitive impulse--the individual and institutional ego, the determination to be first and to get public credit for being first--also drive the coverage on a story like the Simpson murder case. The adrenaline rush and competitive instincts that spur journalists on such a story are often the very forces that make them good, aggressive journalists in the first place. Most reporters are thinking about beating their competitors, not about selling newspapers or safeguarding a defendant's right to a fair trial or helping either his lawyers or the police.
Besides, Times editors said, many defendants in high-profile cases over the last decade or two have been acquitted, even in cases in which the news coverage was largely unfavorable to them.
The police officers in the first Rodney G. King trial, accused of beating a black motorist after a high-speed pursuit? Acquitted. William Kennedy Smith, accused of rape? Acquitted. John and Lorena Bobbitt--accused, respectively, of rape and of malicious wounding? Both acquitted. The teachers at the McMartin Pre-School, accused of child molestation? Acquitted. Auto maker John Delorean, accused of fraud, racketeering and tax evasion? Acquitted. John Connally, the former treasury secretary, accused of perjury and obstruction of justice? Acquitted. Ray Donovan, the former secretary of labor, accused of fraud and grand larceny? Acquitted.
In the Simpson case in particular, many journalists argue, any journalistic threat to Simpson's right to a fair trial in the first days after the murders was more than offset by the ability of his high-priced team of attorneys and experts to use and manipulate the media to their client's advantage in the more than 15 months that followed. Moreover, many media and legal commentators say, Simpson's own wealth, charisma and celebrity predisposed jurors to look favorably on him, no matter what the media reported.
"He is the first defendant I ever saw who literally had the presumption of innocence," said Fred Graham of Court TV. "He's the only defendant I ever heard of who was so highly regarded by the public that when he was accused of murder, he had this reservoir of people who said [he] . . . couldn't have done it."
It's not surprising that most in the media echo Graham's comments and that virtually all insist their coverage did not jeopardize Simpson's right to a fair trial. There is considerably less agreement among journalists, however, on what many think became the most important issue in the case--and in media coverage of the case: