When four LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney G. King were acquitted on most charges in the first trial, many African Americans attributed the verdicts to the jury in Simi Valley being all white. Those jurors didn't have the same kind of experience with police as do many African Americans, they said, so they couldn't believe that police would wantonly beat someone.
African Americans and other minorities have made similar (and equally valid) arguments in urging the hiring of more nonwhite reporters and editors in the nation's news media. They say that most minorities have a different life experience than most whites, so they often have a different perspective that can both broaden and sensitize media coverage.
Given all this, it is not unreasonable to suggest that many African Americans might think differently than many whites about any legal case, especially a case in which a black man is accused of murder and in which a racist police officer played an important role.
What upset many African Americans, though, was not the media's suggestion that race might be a factor, even a significant factor in jury deliberations, but the assumption that it would be the most significant factor, perhaps the only factor.
The police, the coroner's office and the prosecution unquestionably made serious mistakes in this case. Those mistakes-- combined with several evidentiary inconsistencies, a timeline that left Simpson a relatively small window of opportunity to commit the murders and rid himself of any incriminating evidence, and the absence of a murder weapon or any witnesses--could have raised reasonable doubt among jurors, even without the racial issue. But when the media covered the final arguments made by the defense, the emphasis was generally on Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and his appeals for racial justice; most of the media ignored or marginalized Barry Scheck's argument, which ticked off all the weaknesses in the prosecution's case and told jurors there was more than enough reasonable doubt to warrant a not guilty verdict
Apparently, the jurors agreed, black and white alike. The jurors who have spoken out so far say it was the flawed prosecution case, not race that determined their verdict.
"I think a lot of these reporters really do think that black people are so mindless as to vote based solely on the color of their skin," Andrea Ford said. "It's absurd. . . . It's insulting to say that black people have some kind of race loyalty. . . . There's an underlying tone of 'These [black] people are irrational. They're ignoring the evidence.' Well, what was so rational about all those white people in those early polls deciding he was guilty before they'd heard a scintilla of evidence? I have seen no stories on that."
Several white journalists were equally outraged.
Steven Brill of Court TV called the assumption of a strict black-white split on the jury "the worst kind of racism" and pointed out, "In every single major city in this country, a significant percentage, or even a majority of the jurors are nonwhite. . . . [And] every single day of the week . . . African American jurors are unanimously convicting African American defendants."
But Darnell Hunt, an assistant professor of sociology at Simpson's alma mater, USC, said that while there is "no such thing as a monolithic black point of view," blacks do tend to be "more race-conscious" and more prone to "ethnic solidarity" than do most whites. Historically, this has not been uncommon among oppressed minorities and ethnic groups.
Hunt, an African American, is conducting a study of how race affects the way people interpret media coverage. He set up two focus groups earlier this year--one black, one white--to discuss how their perceptions of the Simpson case formed, developed, differed and got passed on. Although Hunt has not yet completed analyzing his data, he said it is already apparent that blacks and whites have diametrically opposed views on many aspects of the case.
Interestingly, he said, he found that media coverage of the case had little effect on people's views over the course of the trial. For the most part, those who thought he was guilty when the focus groups first met in March (mostly whites) still thought he was guilty when they met again in August, and those who thought he was innocent at the first meeting (mostly black) still thought he was innocent at the second meeting.
Hunt said that what his survey subjects saw in the media only confirmed what they already thought. Based on their respective life experiences in our still largely segregated society, blacks and whites often perceive the same event or individual in different ways.
Many journalists, black and white, cited coverage of the testimony of Ron Shipp as a prime example of these differing perceptions.
Shipp, a former police officer and self-described friend of O.J. Simpson, testified as a prosecution witness in February, saying that Simpson had told him he had dreamed about killing his ex-wife.
Shipp is African American, and many white reporters and white legal analysts found his testimony an "unbelievably powerful" weapon for the prosecution, as criminal defense attorney Gerry Spence said in the Los Angeles Times' "Legal Pad." Cross-examination of Shipp by defense attorney Carl E. Douglas "didn't erode Shipp's credibility in the slightest," Spence said.
African Americans generally saw that differently, as their white colleagues soon learned.
John North of Channel 7 said he thought Shipp was "a pretty effective witness," and he was surprised when his black friends told him that they thought Shipp was " 'an Uncle Tom . . . a hanger-on . . . a user' and at least in their view, was not an effective witness." A black writer at KABC told North that he considered Shipp "a whore," and North said this input "may have affected" what he wrote that day, even if only "subconsciously."
Differing black and white perspectives among journalists on the Simpson case appeared very early. Initially, many white journalists did not even regard race as a central issue in the case.
The white media "did their best to try to overlook" the racial angle, said Dennis Schatzman of the Los Angeles Sentinel, a black weekly newspaper. Schatzman may have been the first journalist to write about the racial implications of the case, on the front page of the first issue of the Sentinel published after the murders.
According to a computerized search of the news media, the first Simpson article in the mainstream (i.e., white) press that dealt with race did not appear until a week later, in an Associated Press dispatch. Four days after that, both the Washington Post and the San Diego Union-Tribune published stories that explored feelings about the Simpson case among African Americans.
It wasn't until almost a month after the murders that the news media, alerted by public opinion surveys, began to realize that blacks and whites might see the case very differently.
The Los Angeles Times was especially "deliberate" in approaching the racial divide, said Metropolitan Editor Leo Wolinsky. Mindful that the 1992 riots had left Los Angeles still "struggling with racial divisions," Wolinsky said The Times wanted to be "very careful not to create race differences where none exist."
When the Times Poll conducted a random survey of 1,023 Los Angeles adults two weeks after the murders and found that twice as many African Americans as whites said they were "sympathetic" to Simpson, The Times wrote a brief story and published it on Page 16.
Only after a nationwide USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll a week later reported that 60% of African Americans thought Simpson was innocent while 68% of whites thought he was guilty, did The Times publish a story that examined this phenomenon in any detail.
More than a year later, Wolinsky remained convinced that it was the attorneys, "particularly the defense side," who had made race a big issue in the Simpson case. Even Robert L. Shapiro, one of Simpson's attorneys, told Barbara Walters, in a nationally televised interview the night of the acquittal, "Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck."
Some reporters and commentators agree with Wolinsky that race was not, or should not have been, a major factor in the case or in the story. To them, at first, it was a celebrity case, not a race case. Celebrity was the "overriding factor" in Simpson's previous dealings with the police," said Jim Moret of CNN. "Police wanted to be near him because he was a celebrity."
Because of Simpson's history of spousal abuse, many women thought that should be the central issue in the case, and they were outraged when it quickly became subsumed by the racial issue, in the courtroom and in the media.
In the early months after the murders, many major news organizations seized on the Simpson case as an opportunity to do stories on domestic violence. But once the prosecution decided that the abuse issue didn't seem to be resonating with jurors, they quietly abandoned it. When they did so, it quickly slid off the radar screens of the nation's news media.
Still, many journalists--a number of them white--insist that race was the single most important issue in the Simpson saga, both legal and journalistic, even before the Mark Fuhrman tapes; it's not surprising, they say, that other issues, including domestic abuse, fell by the wayside.
Cochran says it was Fuhrman, not he, who injected race into the case from Day 1, and it's certainly clear that without Fuhrman, the racial aspects of the case would have had substantially less impact. But given the state of race relations in this country, race would inevitably have been a factor, with or without Fuhrman.
"To me," said Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker, "the reason anyone will care about this case five years, 10 years from now is because of what it illuminates about race in America . . . the yawning gap between black people and white people on more issues than many people thought."
Jessica Seigel of the Chicago Tribune said the Simpson story is "only about race. In my own mind, O.J. Simpson was no longer really in the public eye to a great extent. I don't think there's any other explanation to why this has become such a cause celebre. If it were Joe Namath who had killed his wife, do you think we'd be making such a fuss?"
Several black journalists asked similarly rhetorical questions, and virtually all gave the same answer: No. Nor, many of them said, would the case have attracted the same media and public attention if Simpson had killed a black woman, rather than a white woman--and a blonde at that.
Michael Fleeman of Associated Press said the "race component" of case was one he "had to grapple with every single day. Clearly, as a white male, I just see things differently and I constantly have to be aware of that."
In the courthouse pressroom, Fleeman was one of the reporters most given to cynical, sotto voce wisecracks about the failings of both sides throughout the trial. He said there was only one occasion, in his presence, when "the banter stopped and things became serious and it suddenly seemed very inappropriate to use gallows humor."
That was early in the case, when Cochran and Prosecutor Christopher A. Darden, both African Americans, had a heated exchange about the use of the word "nigger" in dealing with the expected testimony of Fuhrman.
Fleeman said the argument left him shaken and the pressroom silent.
At that time, and even more so when the Fuhrman tapes were aired several months later, reporters, editors and television executives had to wrestle with the sensitive question of whether, and how often, to print or broadcast the word "nigger."
The word was crucial to the case and to the story, especially once the tapes were heard in open court. But the word "nigger" is ugly and offensive. Some in the media chose to avoid it and to refer only to "the N-word," as the lawyers on both sides most often did in court. Other news organizations used the full word. Some used the full word once or twice, then referred to it as the "N-word" thereafter. Some television stations allowed the full word in their visual presentations but used "the N-word" in their spoken reports.
That one vile word--and the legal and journalistic debates that surrounded its use--provided an ample, if painful case study of the importance of race to the entire story.
Like the Los Angeles Sentinel, many other black-owned newspapers have given the Simpson story, and its various racial angles, substantial and prominent attention; among white-owned, big-city newspapers, there is a clear correlation between heavy coverage and a large black population.
The Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Examiner have published more Simpson stories (and more Simpson stories on Page 1) than any other daily newspapers in the United States. But that's because both regarded the case as a local story. (Simpson was born and grew up in San Francisco.) Apart from these two papers, however, the big-city newspapers that published the most Simpson stories were generally those in cities where blacks make up a substantially greater percentage of the population than the national average of 12%: the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (percentage of blacks in population: 67%), the Chicago Tribune (39%), the Baltimore Sun (59%), the Newark Star-Ledger (58%) and the Detroit Free Press (76%).
Among the major big-city newspapers (excluding tabloids and the national newspapers USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, neither of which has a local circulation base), the newspaper that has published the fewest Simpson stories is the Denver Post (percentage of blacks in population: 12.8%).
Ironically, one journalist who thinks the racial angle has been greatly overplayed is George Curry, editor in chief of the black newsmagazine Emerge and a regular commentator on "Lead Story," a news analysis program that appears weekly on Black Entertainment Television. While white-run magazines have scurried to get their latest Simpson cover stories into print, Emerge has yet to put Simpson on its cover. Its only story of any length on the case was a February "dialogue" about media coverage of the case, based on a panel discussion at the annual convention of the National Assn. of Black Journalists.
"We have given little coverage to the O.J. Simpson story because O.J. Simpson is not a person who has cast his lot with African Americans," said Curry, a former longtime reporter for the Washington Post and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "In fact, you could say just the opposite. He's gone out of his way to not align himself with blacks.
The difference between Curry's view and that of many other black journalists on this issue is but one of many differences--most of them cutting across racial lines--that have manifested themselves in media coverage throughout this strange case.
For all the massive and sometimes monstrous coverage the trial received, the media were not a mindless, monomaniacal monolith; from Day 1, there were major differences in the way various news organizations viewed it and in the amount of space and time they gave it.