THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Obsession: DID THE MEDIA OVERFEED A STARVING PUBLIC? : CHAPTER SIX: THE RACE CARD : 'No, no, no. He couldn't be guilty . . . Well, maybe he could.'

Times Staff Writer

Cynthia McFadden of ABC News finds it ironic that while intense public and media interest in the Simpson case "bespeak a nation that longs for something in common," the story has wound up being "divisive," exposing and exacerbating racial differences in our society.

Jessica Seigel of the Chicago Tribune agrees. She is one of many reporters, white and black, who think the news media relied too heavily on early public opinion polls, rather than performing their own independent reporting, on how blacks and whites felt about the case against Simpson.

Seigel, who like McFadden is white, thinks the polls misstated or at least mischaracterized the attitudes of many African Americans toward Simpson's guilt or innocence. Most of these polls, she suggests, asked only a few questions and got predictably superficial or knee-jerk answers about feelings that were really quite complex. The reporting on these polls has been "creating [racial] divisions where there might not be any," she said.

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Early in the trial, Seigel spent some time at a Los Angeles barbershop patronized largely by African Americans. At first, she says, they told her, "No, no, no. He couldn't be guilty." But after she sat down and talked with them a bit, "they would say, 'Well, maybe he could.' "

Sam Fulwood III, an African American reporter in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, got similar results in his own, informal barbershop poll. "I don't think any blacks want to give up any black man . . . to the white racist criminal justice system," Fulwood said. "If pollsters, 99% of whom are white, ask blacks if he's guilty, then the 'race gene' kicks in and they all say no. Privately, like in my barbershop, they may say, 'Oh yeah, he did it. But I wouldn't tell any white person that.' "

This is not to suggest that the polls are entirely wrong. Clearly, a higher percentage of African Americans than whites think Simpson is innocent. And a much higher percentage were hoping that he hadn't committed the murders and were relieved when he was acquitted.

But many critics say the media exaggerated the black-white gap on the Simpson case and, more important, missed the significant nuances it represented.

Blacks were especially outspoken on this point.

"Many black people I know have mixed feelings," said Janet Clayton, editor of the editorial pages at the Los Angeles Times. "No matter what they tell the pollsters, what they really mean is they think he's innocent until proven guilty."

Blacks are more likely than whites to take this position sincerely and not just pay lip service to it, Clayton said, "because of their own experience with the criminal justice system--their experience or their uncle's or brother's or cousin's."

Virtually every African American interviewed for on this issue had stories about African Americans--themselves and/or others--being hassled or arrested by the police for no reason other than the stereotypes associated with their skin color. Thus, said Karen Smith of Southwestern University School of Law, when pollsters asked people if they thought Simpson was innocent, many black respondents, unlike their white counterparts, may actually have been answering the (unasked) question, "Is it possible to believe that he could have been framed?"

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Even before the Mark Fuhrman tapes surfaced, most blacks would have answered that question with a resounding "Yes."

But many blacks were willing to at least consider the possibility that Simpson was guilty anyway.

As Stanley Crouch, an African American, wrote in the New York Daily News seven weeks ago, in the aftermath of the Fuhrman tape controversy, there are those who "believe [Simpson] was framed for a crime he committed."

The media gave virtually no attention to this possibility. The very few stories that did mention it didn't explore it in any detail.

Lorraine Adams, a white reporter for the Washington Post, said that in the course of reporting a story in July about the differing racial perspectives on the Simpson case, she found that African Americans were much more open-minded about the case than were whites. Blacks are "much more able to come up with reasons why he could be guilty than whites are able to come up with reasons why he could be innocent," she said. "The whites . . . are more implacable and hearing less. . . . I find an unwillingness on the part of whites to hear, to actually listen and absorb and give credit to the black experience of the criminal justice system. . . . The coverage of the conspiracy is always coverage that says it's implausible."

Adams wrote about this distinction, but few others in the media did so, despite all the stories they wrote and broadcast about the racial divide that the case had exposed.

If the phenomenon of African Americans being more likely to think Simpson is innocent was worth examining, why didn't the media do stories trying to explain why whites were so overwhelmingly certain of his guilt? asked Andrea Ford, an African American reporter at The Times. Why were blacks, rather than whites, cast as the people whose position needed explaining?

Ford's answer: The white editors and news directors who assign and place stories had an underlying assumption of Simpson's guilt.

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Only a relative handful of African American reporters have covered the case consistently for the mainstream media. Some work for major national news outlets: CBS, CNN, the Los Angeles Times; others work for local news outlets: KNBC Channel 4, KTLA Channel 5, the Daily News of Los Angeles. But these were exceptions among the 1,159 reporters accredited to the Simpson trial, and few reporters, black or white, worked for news organizations with top black editors or news directors.

"Most of our coverage is done and directed by white people," Ford said. "No black editor making decisions. No black person actually writing the main story. I think that is truly, truly disturbing."

At The Times, this was especially true during the final months of the trial, when editors moved Ford out of her daily seat in the courtroom, which had enabled her to contribute to the main trial story, and gave her various other Simpson assignments that would take advantage of her "unique perspective," as Leo Wolinsky, the metropolitan editor, put it.

The Times' seat in the courtroom was then rotated among several reporters--sometimes including Ford, about once a week or so--in an effort, editors say, to "freshen up" the paper's coverage.

The white predominance of the Simpson press corps manifested itself in many ways, most notably in the near-unanimous assumption that reporters shared with their editors and news directors: Simpson was guilty.

"Black reporters seem more likely [than white reporters] to look at O.J. with a presumption of innocence," said Shirley Perlman, a white reporter who covered the case for Newsday. "That doesn't mean to say that they will say that he's innocent. But they will tend to look upon him with a presumption of innocence. And I think that's the big difference."

In fact, the racial split among reporters on Simpson's guilt or innocence closely mirrored what many African Americans say is the true division among the public.

Black reporters interviewed for this story had varying opinions about Simpson's guilt: yes, no, maybe, no comment, not certain and, in effect, "guilty but also a victim of planted or tainted evidence."

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Most white reporters said they thought Simpson was guilty; a few declined to comment and a couple said they were uncertain. Most reporters were circumspect about expressing their views and did not want to be identified by name on this point, although Dominick Dunne of Vanity Fair openly said, "I believed he did it from the first moment I read about it."

Even when unspoken, Simpson's guilt was the underlying assumption of most Simpson jokes, in the press corps and elsewhere.

"What I have found most disturbing," Ford said, "has been the attitude in the press corps and in newsrooms that is anti-defense." Ford said there was a "disdainful, dismissive attitude taken toward the defense" in the courthouse press room. "The defense is automatically seen as sleazy and dishonest," she said. "The prosecution is automatically seen as virtuous."

Ford's white colleague, Henry Weinstein, who has a law degree, said he was upset that some reporters, like many in the public, denigrated the defense attorneys, in conversation, as "sleazy, manipulative operators trying anything to get their clients off." It's the attorney's job to do everything he can, within ethical bounds, to acquit his client, Weinstein said.

Ford was so outspoken in her criticism of the media's mind-set on Simpson and his attorneys that some reporters and prosecutors accused her of being pro-defense.

She denied that. She wasn't pro-defense, she said, just "pro-journalism."

But the Simpson story put black reporters in a difficult position.

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Marc Watts of CNN said many African American viewers called and wrote letters and accosted him on the street to accuse him of being anti-Simpson, "a sellout," "an Uncle Tom [who's] not giving the brother justice." White viewers have accused him of being "obviously biased" in Simpson's favor.

Although there is a clear and understandable sympathy for Simpson evident in much coverage in the African American press, examination of the coverage by Watts, Ford and other mainstream African American reporters reveals no such slant. Indeed, both Watts and Ford, like many other mainstream African American journalists assigned to the case, were generally praised by their colleagues for the quality of their work.

How about the white reporters? Did the widespread assumption of Simpson's guilt in the preponderantly white press corps influence how these reporters covered the story? Were their stories tilted in favor of the prosecution?

In a Los Angeles Times poll taken last week, 60% of the people surveyed in Los Angeles County said they thought the media had been fair to Simpson. But 49% of the black respondents and 17% of the white respondents said the media were biased against him. (Ten percent of the white respondents and 6% of the black respondents found the media biased for Simpson.)

David Margolick of the New York Times said the "profound skepticism of the defense" in the press room was something he shared and "had to guard against as best I could in my stories. I don't think I always succeeded . . . . We all sort of influence each other and . . . maybe lose a little bit of our independence."

The herd mentality is often a problem for reporters, but it represented a particularly precarious pitfall for the Simpson press corps because reporters worked for so long in such close proximity to one another, sharing routine information and official documents on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

"In this most competitive case ever, we cooperated the most," said Harvey Levin of KCBS Channel 2. "We use each other as sounding boards--constantly, constantly. We're always going over evidence. . . . We say, 'What did you make of what Cochran did or what Shapiro did?' 'How do you think the witness played [to the jury]?' "

Although reporters came to feel like members of an extended, if overworked, family, some--like Margolick--also expressed concern about whether the prevailing certainty of Simpson's guilt among their colleagues would unfairly influence the coverage of the trial.

Not surprisingly, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. said it did--with some exceptions.

Not surprisingly, prosecutor William Hodgman said it generally did not--and that the little bias he did see in the media favored the defense.

Cochran's affability, availability and quotability may help explain that. He and the other defense attorneys were willing, often eager, to talk to reporters--and frequently provocative when they did so; once the legal proceedings began, prosecutors were generally closemouthed.

Moreover, many journalists and attorneys, all of them white, said they thought reporters bent over backward, perhaps too far backward at times, to be fair to Simpson, precisely because most of them were convinced of his guilt.

"A lot of the people that I know who work in the media are liberals--guilty liberals," said Gigi Gordon, a criminal defense attorney and frequent expert commentator on the trial. "They go to extreme lengths to be objective and fair and they're reluctant to say things that they think might be politically incorrect or that might be perceived [as] or spun into racism." As a result, Gordon said, Simpson has had "a fairer run [from the media] than any other criminal defendant I've ever seen."

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Although reporters often have strong opinions, the most responsible among them try hard, and usually successfully, to keep their opinions from unfairly influencing their coverage. But feelings about whether Simpson was guilty and about how the attorneys on both sides were doing their jobs seemed especially intense on this case, among journalists as well as the public.

"It's impossible as a human being to sit there day after day after day, which these reporters are doing . . . without getting involved . . . starting to form opinions on whether or not you believe he's guilty, whether or not you believe a witness is credible," said Gerald Chaleff, a criminal defense attorney. "You have to be an incredible human being not to have it influence you in some way."

It would be "naive" to think that the journalistic consensus on Simpson's guilt didn't affect coverage in some way, however subtly and unintentionally, said David Bloom, a white reporter who covered the case for NBC's "Nightly News." Day in and day out, he said, reporters' opinions did not, by and large, unfairly influence their coverage. "But if the vast majority [of reporters] have concluded that O.J. Simpson is guilty, does that inherently find a way to creep into coverage, in a subtle way? The answer has to be yes. Arguing against that proposition would be a logical absurdity."

Two of the examples of alleged media bias that were cited the most often seemed to have less to do with an assumption of guilt, however, than with what might be characterized as cultural blindness.

Within days of Simpson's arrest, African Americans were outraged by a Time magazine cover featuring Simpson's face. An artist at Time had modified the arrest photograph that had been released by the LAPD, and the resulting "photo illustration," as Time called it, made Simpson appear darker and more out of focus, more somber than the actual photo.

Blacks and many whites said the cover made Simpson look guilty and they criticized Time for playing into unfair, inaccurate and damaging stereotypes that depict black men as sinister and menacing.

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James Gaines, the managing editor of Time, apologized for the cover--"a huge embarrassment," he called it--and he denied any racist intent. "It was clearly a case of racial insensitivity," he said. "If there had been an African American at that place at that time, I'm sure we wouldn't have run that cover."

Maynard Parker, the editor of Newsweek, which published the unadulterated police mug shot the same week, said Time was wrong to "fiddle around" with the photo. You don't want to create a false image," Parker said.

But 10 weeks later, Newsweek, too, was accused of racism in its Simpson coverage.

On Aug. 29, 1994, Newsweek published a cover story on "The Double Life of O.J. Simpson." The story said Simpson was addicted to white women and "took lessons to make his diction more 'white.' " It spoke of his playing golf and of his work in the "white corporate world . . . with Hertz." Many African Americans resented what they saw as a presumptuous attempt by a white-run magazine to suggest how a black man should act.

Most criticisms of the racial aspects of the media's Simpson coverage involved issues far less conspicuous than either the Newsweek story or the Time cover. Several African Americans said the problem was often one of tone or perspective, and sometimes more a matter of omission than commission.

The Times' Ford said she detected the media's bias primarily in "shadings [and] selection . . . of language," as with the media's frequent references to the "mountain of evidence" against Simpson, a phrase used by the prosecution and repeated by the media, often without attribution or quotation marks. It became a daily journalistic mantra ("Faced with a mountain of evidence against Simpson, his lawyers . . . ").

Had a racial bias not existed, or had more African Americans been involved in covering and directing coverage of the case, Ford says there also would have been far fewer references to the racial composition of the jury. Those references began long before the jury was actually selected, as soon as Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti shifted the trial from Santa Monica to the criminal courthouse in Downtown Los Angeles, "thereby virtually assuring that the jurors would be mainly black and Latino with moderate incomes," as the Los Angeles Times later put it.

Once the jury was selected--it originally included eight African Americans and wound up with nine among its 12 members--pundits pronounced it, in effect, a dream team for the "Dream Team."

"There have been too many simple generalities about race and what that means in terms of peoples' predisposition toward a verdict, one way or the other," said Janet Gilmore, an African American reporter for the Daily News of Los Angeles.

Stories in several newspapers--the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post among them--pointed out that this might not necessarily prove true. But the assumption inherent in many references elsewhere--it was spelled out explicitly in some media stories--was that a largely black jury might acquit Simpson solely (or at least largely) because he is black.

"The people who we [in the media] rely on, these professors and lawyers--the pundit group--they assume that if somebody's black, they're pro-O.J. and they assume that if they're white, they're anti-O.J.," said Lorraine Adams of the Washington Post. "So there's been some racism just in the jury reading."

Interviews given by jurors who were ousted earlier, however, and the transcripts of Judge Ito's conversations with those jurors, strongly suggested some months ago that there was not a straight black-white division. The speed with which the jury reached its unanimous verdict Monday made it seem clearer that there was no such division and, indeed, the jurors said as much publicly.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

COVER STORY CONTROVERSY

When Time magazine artificially darkened a photo of O.J. Simpson on its cover, many African Americans and others were outraged; they said it made Simpson look "sinister, menacing and guilty." Newsweek also drew criticism for a cover story that said Simpson "lived a double life."

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