Early in the week of June 13, 1994, the editors of Time and Newsweek magazines knew they had a cover story for that week's editions.
Over the next 10 months, Newsweek published six cover stories on the Simpson case and more than 100 Simpson stories and items all told. Many broke new ground and were quoted in other publications and applauded by other journalists.
Time, meanwhile, published only one other Simpson cover until the issue before the verdict, 16 months later. Overall, Time published a little more than half as many Simpson stories as Newsweek. Many weeks, Time limited its coverage to a single paragraph in its "Chronicles" section.
Why has Time been so dismissive of a story that its primary competitor thinks is important?
Maynard Parker, the editor of Newsweek, thinks the answer is that Time's first cover story featured the now-infamous "sinister" Simpson photo, and that angry reaction to that cover made the magazine gun-shy. "Time botched the story so badly the first week out of the box," he said, "that they've shied away from it. . . . They've been very self-conscious about it."
James Gaines, managing editor of Time, denied that the "sinister" cover influenced his decision to downplay the Simpson story.
"I just don't think there are that many people waiting for us to summarize the week's events," he said. With live television coverage and daily newspaper coverage, "people who are interested know it and people who aren't don't want to" read about it in Time.
News organizations like Newsweek that "made the mistake of really going for . . . O.J. newsstand sales and O.J. [TV] ratings . . . will be tarnished by it ultimately," Gaines said.
Time and Newsweek are not the only competitors who have taken disparate approaches to the Simpson story:
- In Simpson's hometown, the San Francisco Examiner, despite a considerably smaller news hole than the San Francisco Chronicle, has nonetheless published more than twice as many Simpson stories on Page 1 as has the Chronicle.
- Among the three traditional nightly network newscasts, NBC's "Nightly News" has devoted almost 50% more air time to the Simpson story than has ABC's "World News Tonight." (The CBS "Evening News" has given the story slightly less time than has "Nightly News.')
- The Los Angeles Times has published more than twice as many Simpson stories and has probably devoted 10 times as much total space to Simpson as has the New York Times.
The reasons for these dramatic differences, as advanced by the journalists responsible for them, reflect much more than just a professional difference of opinion, an intramural squabble suitable for discussion in a college journalism review. Much as the different attitudes of white and African American journalists on the Simpson case reflect a major chasm in society at large, so the differing approaches of various media organizations reflect a chasm between those who think the story has been worthy of all the media attention it has received and those who think it has been vastly overcovered. Tom Brokaw, anchor for the NBC "Nightly News," said he can't remember a story that "caused so much angst," at NBC and elsewhere. In the early weeks and months of the story, Brokaw said, NBC staffers were constantly asking themselves and one another, "How much is too much? Are we all prostituting ourselves to the O.J. thing? Have we been driven by the lowest common denominator?"
Around the time the trial started, Brokaw said he told his staff, "Listen, we're not going to have this larger philosophical debate every time an O.J. story comes up. We're going to make a decision based on what's going on that day and whether we think this is something worthwhile putting on the air. What we finally decided [is] . . . like it or not, it's a continually compelling story at about nine different levels. If this were 200 years ago, this would be Othello. This would be the stuff of grand opera."
"Othello" had a long run on NBC.
Brokaw frankly acknowledges that his program gave the Simpson story so much time--15% of its total newscast since January--because NBC was afraid that the "national obsession" with the case and the live, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial by CNN, Court TV and others might "drain away audience from mainstream news programming" at NBC and elsewhere. He said NBC put "an O.J. element in 'Nightly News' to . . . [tell viewers], 'You can get some of that here as well.' "
In other words, NBC was seeking ratings.
Peter Jennings, Brokaw's counterpart at ABC, thinks that was a mistake.
"Those people who want [Simpson coverage] . . . are going to get a lot more of it elsewhere," he said. "Why are they going to come to us for a sandwich when they can have a seven-course meal somewhere else?"
Who was right?
The Nielsen ratings for network news programs deal in tenths of a percentage point, so it's difficult to make any definitive judgment. ABC was in first place before the O.J. Simpson case, and ABC is still in first place. NBC was in second place, and NBC is still in second place. But comparing the average ratings before the murders with those from the past two months shows that NBC did cut ABC's lead by two-tenths of a rating point and that NBC did increase its own lead over third-place CBS by three-tenths of a rating point.
Jennings concedes that the Simpson story is "fascinating," and as a network, ABC certainly hasn't undercovered it. The various ABC magazine shows have been tripping all over one another in their zeal to broadcast Simpson, Simpson and more Simpson. Collectively, the networks's magazine shows--"Nightline," "20/20" and "Prime-Time Live"--have done more than 100 Simpson stories.
Jennings said that he sometimes watched one of the nightly wrap-ups on the trial. But he also said he didn't want his own program to give it too much attention since ABC, like CBS and NBC, has only 22 minutes in its nightly newscast.
"If you're captured by O.J. for X number of minutes every night, those are X number of minutes you're not able to do other things," he said. "There is no doubt--and I think everybody would tell you that, even those people who have done vast amounts of it--there has been too much O.J. Simpson coverage at the expense of other matters."
That may be the single biggest difference between network television and big-city daily newspapers. Even with news holes shrinking as newsprint prices soar, most major metropolitan dailies may still have enough space for a gallon a day of O.J. and the rest of the journalistic groceries as well.
Not everyone agrees.
The Los Angeles Times has devoted more space and staff to the story than any other daily newspaper in the country, and while virtually everyone interviewed for this media retrospective praised the breadth and depth of the paper's coverage, some, including Times staffers and readers, have questioned whether that saturation coverage has been the best allocation of the paper's resources.
The combination of extensive Times coverage and intensive public interest made that coverage a central and uncharacteristically frequent topic of conversation in many quarters in Los Angeles, especially those places where Simpson reporters gathered and where The Times was must reading every day, even among those who criticized it.
That is the position normally occupied in this country by the New York Times. But because the Simpson story is a Los Angeles story, and because of The Times' massive commitment, it's the Los Angeles Times, rather than the New York Times, that has been the "paper of record" on this story, according to just about every reporter covering the case, including David Margolick of the New York Times.
In fact, many journalists covering the case said they found the New York Times' coverage of the Simpson case oddly "schizophrenic."
Reporters were practically unanimous in extolling Margolick as the best, most stylish writer covering the case. They were almost equally complimentary about his ability to be authoritative and insightful and--in stories that were only a fraction as long as the L.A. Times' daily Simpson package--to "get a lot of details in . . . that really convey what it's like to be here," as Lorraine Adams of the Washington Post put it. "He's done a fabulous job."
But in the courthouse press room, Margolick could often be heard grumbling over the telephone to his editors about how little space they had allotted to his story, and many members of the Simpson press corps said New York Times editors seemed almost "embarrassed" to have to cover the story at all.
"Margolick does a great job . . . given their limitation on him," said Gregg Jarrett of Court TV. His editors "almost refuse to put him on the front page because it's 'undignified' to have the Simpson trial on the front page."
A celebrity double murder is not traditional New York Times material and, "They're not sure how the story fits in the newspaper," said Aaron Brown of ABC News.
"We're uncomfortable with stories the tabloids are fixated on," he said.
The Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and most other U.S. newspapers put their first Simpson story on Page 1 on June 14, 1994, the day after the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were discovered. The New York Times didn't put the Simpson story on Page 1 until four days later.
In the 16 months that followed, the New York Times published fewer Page 1 Simpson stories--52--than any other major paper in the United States. The Boston Globe published 102, the Philadelphia Inquirer 121, the Dallas Morning News 123, the Atlanta Journal & Constitution 126, the Miami Herald 129 and USA Today 143. The Los Angeles Times published 398.
Margolick says he has been "astounded" by how often the Los Angeles Times has put the Simpson story on Page 1, and while he would have liked to see his own stories on Page 1 more often, his editors defend their approach to the story. The New York Times only puts a Simpson story on Page 1 "when there is a real development, as opposed to milking it every day for headline value," said Managing Editor Eugene Roberts, echoing comments made by Robert G. Kaiser, managing editor of the Washington Post, about his paper's relatively small number of Page 1 Simpson stories (70).
Thus, the New York Times put Simpson on Page 1 last week both when the jury reached its verdict and again when that verdict was announced.
In reporting the verdict, the New York Times devoted 60% of its front page to three Simpson stories and spread nine more stories over four full pages inside. The paper also published an editorial and two op-ed page columns on the case that day.
But before those ultimately definitive moments, not even the story that reported the playing of the Mark Fuhrman tapes in open court--probably the most explosive event in the entire trial--made Page 1 of the New York Times, much to Margolick's chagrin. The story did make Page 1 in newspapers in virtually every other major city in the country, including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, St. Louis and, of course, Los Angeles.
Shelby Coffey III, editor of the Los Angeles Times, said the local nature of the Simpson story "gives [it] something of a tilt" toward Page 1 most days. Covering the story and its myriad characters heavily and prominently has enabled the Times to "say some interesting things about the city," Coffey said.
The Times has had five reporters working essentially full-time on the Simpson case for more than a year. Many other staffers have also contributed to the coverage. The paper has published more than 1,500 Simpson stories in the past 16 months, an average of slightly more than three a day. On the day after every court day but five once the trial began, The Times published a Simpson story on Page 1, and on those days it gave the story at least one full page, often two.
When the verdicts were announced, The Times gave it the entire front page, 11 of the first 12 pages of the 26-page main news section, the first two pages of the Metro section and portions of four other pages in the paper. The Times published 26 Simpson stories and columns that day, assorted small features, a half-page editorial and four op-ed page articles. The credit box of those Times staffers and correspondents who contributed to the day's coverage listed 94 names.
Throughout the trial, even many reporters and editors at The Times grumbled that the paper should have reduced its Simpson coverage and used some of that space and personnel to cover more aggressively the conservative legislative revolution in Washington, among other, weightier stories. (Amid all the effort expended on the Simpson case, for example, the paper has ignored almost every other case in the county's criminal justice system other than those that were connected to or could be contrasted with the Simpson case.)
With the Southern California economy still sluggish, advertising revenue down and the paper's full-time professional staff reduced since 1990 by three voluntary buyouts and the recent elimination of 150 full-time positions from a staff of 1,250, these Times staffers think the paper should not use its diminished resources on a murder story, however fascinating it may be, unless the paper is prepared to make the same commitment to other, more important issues.
Narda Zacchino, associate editor of The Times, said she has been captivated by the Simpson story and has read every word of The Times' coverage, but she said the story "affects far fewer people than the radical transformation of our government and the way the government is going to be serving the people of this country. That affects everyone in this country. Can you imagine how much more thorough our coverage of all that would have been if we had a proportionate saturation coverage of it?"
Other Times journalists with similar criticisms are reluctant to make them on the record because most of the top editors have been personally committed to the Simpson story and because Coffey is known to be extremely interested in it--the "driving force," several editors say, behind the paper's exhaustive coverage (including the special sections the paper is now publishing).
Coffey said the Simpson story is worthy of the resources The Times has given it. In addition to being a good local story that's gotten worldwide attention, he said, it has "race and celebrity . . . and courtroom drama . . . and elements of Shakespearean quality to it. The trip through the legal system itself is interesting and, in the broad sense of the word, educational."
Moreover, although some of the reporters assigned to the Simpson case could have been deployed elsewhere to good effect, Coffey said the rest of The Times has continued to provide thorough, enterprising coverage of a whole range of important local, national and international issues.
Henry Weinstein, who has provided much of the paper's legal analysis on the Simpson case, makes a similar point. A lawyer and former political activist who has written about labor, legal affairs and urban problems for The Times in his 17 years at the paper, Weinstein has never been reluctant to criticize his bosses when he thought they have paddled The Times' boat into shallow, murky or foul waters.
"But to say that the Los Angeles Times has paid attention to this [Simpson] story to the exclusion of other stories, that's humbug," Weinstein said. "The facts belie that. During the time this case has gone on," he said, "the Los Angeles Times did splendid work on Rwanda, Bosnia, Proposition 187 and other immigration issues, flaws in local subway construction, hunger among local schoolchildren and changes in the health care system [that] are pushing more and more people into health maintenance organizations that may not serve their needs well--all the traditional things a good, national newspaper should do."
Other Times staffers cite the paper's multipart examinations of affirmative action, the Nasdaq stock market and the United Auto Workers strike at Caterpillar Inc. and its extensive coverage of the 1994 elections, the Oklahoma City bombing, various mega-mergers and the rebellion in Chechnya as proof that the paper has not been entirely Simpsonized.
The Times' average of three Simpson stories a day must be put in perspective, they say; on average, the paper publishes a total of more than 150 stories a day in all sections of its main edition.
In his own work on the Simpson case, Weinstein said, he has had an opportunity to explain to Times readers a whole range of complicated legal issues and procedures in the criminal justice system that they would never have had an opportunity to read about had it not been for this case and the commitment The Times made to it.
Many competing journalists and many attorneys lauded the legal analyses that Weinstein and his colleague Tim Rutten did on the Simpson case ("without parallel," in the words of Art Harris of CNN). But in the course of more than 80 interviews for this story, The Times trial reporter who received the widest and most enthusiastic praise, especially from fellow journalists, was--again--Jim Newton, who wrote the vast majority of the paper's daily trial stories, much as he had written most of the main stories in the days after the murders.
Although most reporters who spent any time in the Simpson courtroom said that was the best way to get a sense of the principals and of the emotions involved--and to talk to the principals during breaks--Newton did most of his work at The Times, a block from the courthouse. Because of The Times' proximity and resources, Newton had a luxury denied most other Simpson reporters. He could stay in his office while other Times reporters worked in the courtroom, the courthouse press room and the courthouse hallways.
Like some of the network TV reporters, Newton usually tried to go to the courtroom once a week or so to get a firsthand look at (and feel for) the proceedings. Like the network reporters, though, he found it more efficient to work elsewhere--he in an office, they at their studios or in their trailers across the street from the courthouse. That way, Newton and the network reporters said, they could watch the trial on television and simultaneously work the telephone, interviewing sources and taking information from whichever of their organization's reporters was in the courtroom that day. None of that was possible in the courtroom or even in the courthouse press room, where any phone conversation would not only have been overheard by competitors but would have interfered with all the other reporters, who were trying to hear the courtroom proceedings on the two television sets there.
For the TV reporters, being at the studio also made it easier to edit and produce their stories; assembling various audio and video clips into a quick, 90-second or two-minute package is in many ways a more complicated procedure than a print reporter's writing a much longer story.
Newton had a formidable daily task himself, though. He wove his own reporting and that of other Times reporters into trial stories that generally ranged from 2,500 to 3,000 words a day--consistently the longest and most detailed of any news organization in the country, print or broadcast.
Not only are Newton's stories "well put together," said Margolick of the New York Times, but the sheer amount of copy he produces every day is "just awesome to me. . . . For Jim Newton to be doing what he's done, day in and day out for months, is really staggering, it's just an incredible feat."
Many other reporters described Newton's work with essentially the same language they used to describe The Times' Simpson coverage in general: Comprehensive. Accurate. Fair.
The most comprehensive Simpson coverage of all came, of course, on the stations that broadcast every word of trial testimony, and reporters and attorneys interviewed for this special section expressed great admiration for that coverage and, in particular, for the gavel-to-gavel coverage of Court TV and CNN.
"The most impressive people to me, probably, in television are the Court TV . . . reporters," Margolick said. "Court TV is wonderful, and the Court TV reporters are incredibly smart and energetic. They've done terrific work, terrific and very responsible work. . . . Every day they break stories. I think they've set a standard for everybody."
Unlike CNN, which used two regular commentators, Court TV called on a rotating roster of experts to appear with their rotating anchors: Fred Graham and Gregg Jarrett (during the early months of the trial) and Rikki Kleiman (during the final months). All three are highly regarded by their peers (as was Jim Moret, CNN's primary anchor).
Others in the press corps also praised Court TV's primary trial reporters, Dan Abrams and Kristen Jeanette-Meyers, both of whom were singled out for their diligence, good sources, legal know-how and avoidance of the hype and frenzy that often characterized local TV coverage.
Court TV and the other television networks and stations that covered the trial from gavel to gavel had the usual advantages that television enjoys over print media--immediacy, intimacy and drama among them--and they also had an advantage they rarely enjoy: In the course of a day or a week, they would actually give viewers more material, in sheer volume, than any newspaper, even the Los Angeles Times.
But most reporters agreed that anyone who couldn't watch TV all day was probably best served in this case by reading The Times.
Even Fred Graham of Court TV said, "It would have been very difficult for me to stay on top of [the Simpson trial] . . . without the very full coverage of the Los Angeles Times." David Bloom of NBC's "Nightly News" said that while the Simpson case was "particularly well-suited to television . . . if I want to read the newspaper of record on the O.J. Simpson story, I'm going to pick up the L.A. Times. No question I'm going to pick up the L.A. Times because I know that their reporters know the story better than anybody else does."
Competing reporters, including some who praised the thoroughness of The Times' coverage, also complained that it didn't have enough "edge" or "subtext" or "color."
Margolick, for example, said that while Times coverage has been "incredibly comprehensive" and while The Times is "clearly the paper to read if you want to understand the case," the coverage should have been "more focused and . . . more fun. . . . I think the paper is so self-consciously serious that it often makes an inherently fascinating story a little bit dull."
Many other reporters echoed Margolick's critique.
"There's a sort of ponderous nature to the [Times] coverage," said Mark Miller of Newsweek. "It's a murder trial so it's not . . . something to be made light of, but it is, in many ways, an odd and bizarre and alternately hilarious and depressing spectacle that deserves to be covered in a full manner, particularly by the hometown newspaper."
More important, several critics say, The Times sometimes gave its readers so much material, so exquisitely balanced, that it may have been difficult for readers to figure out exactly what was important on a given day. The paper was almost too fair, too balanced, overly cautious--"agonizingly evenhanded in a way that, in some cases, may or may not be beneficial to its readers," in the words of Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker.
Some Times stories that have given equal weight to both sides may just have given readers "a debating team view," said Lorraine Adams of the Washington Post, echoing a criticism of The Times that was widespread among her colleagues. "I care passionately about balance, too, [but] . . . we're not running a debating team when we write these stories. We're supposed to tell readers what we know to be true as best as we can ascertain it."
But reporters "don't always know the truth in these cases," argued Leo Wolinsky, The Times metropolitan editor. "A good example of that was the initial verdicts in the Rodney King case. I think if you would have gone around the newsroom, not just this newsroom, almost every newsroom, everybody would have said that the officers were most likely to have been found guilty based on the videotape.
"I think a lot of the reporting went that direction," Wolinsky said, and he notes that some people have suggested that the riots might not have erupted if news media had helped prepare the city for the possibility of the not guilty verdicts that the jury in Simi Valley ultimately rendered. On a story as complex and sensitive as the Simpson case, "We want . . . to be 'agonizingly evenhanded,' " Wolinsky said. "We want that main [trial story] extremely objective and as thorough as possible.
Assessment, commentary and "offbeat" coverage, Times editors said, were "by design" largely reserved for various feature stories; for the legal analyses written by Weinstein and Rutten; for Bill Boyarsky's "Spin" column (which covered the relationships among journalists, attorneys and other principals in the case), and for the daily "Legal Pad," in which three legal commentators--two regular, one rotating--offered their evaluations of the day's events.
Many journalists and attorneys were especially complimentary about Boyarsky's work ("fabulous," said Harvey Levin of KCBS Channel 2). They said Boyarsky gave readers a feel for the people and the texture of events, using a personal touch that complemented what many saw as an overly earnest tone in much of The Times' coverage. Critics say that even with Boyarsky and the other features, The Times didn't do enough of what NBC's Bloom called "what this means" stories. But most journalists and attorneys, including those who criticized elements of The Times' coverage, lavished praise on the "Legal Pad."
Many said it was the first story they read every day; some said that when they were pressed for time, it was the only story they read.
"I think that's been a brilliant idea," Toobin said. "You get some sense of whether each side is making any progress. . . . You just have some sense of the texture of the events."
Indeed, one of the regular "Legal Pad" contributors, Peter Arenella of UCLA Law School, was cited in interview after interview as having provided the most reasoned, insightful analyses of all the expert commentators, not just in The Times but on ABC and KTLA Channel 5, where he also served as a regular analyst. (The Times, like other mainstream newspapers, did not pay its analysts. Most broadcast outlets did pay the analysts who appeared regularly.)
The only criticism voiced of "Legal Pad" was the same criticism voiced of all coverage of the Simpson case, in all the media: An overemphasis on what several critics called the "horse race" aspect of each day's court battle. Arenella said that was a "completely legitimate and fair criticism."
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A Different Perspective
The Simpson case was, ultimately, a Los Angeles story, and for the Los Angeles Times, it immediately became--and long remained--a Page 1 story, The Times published 398 Simpson stories on its front page. The story received much less prominent coverage in the New York Times, 3,000 miles away and "uncomfortable with stories the tabloids are fixated on," in the words of David Margolick, their reporter at the trial.