For O.J. Simpson and his advisers, the best journalist may be an unprepared journalist.
On Wednesday afternoon, after Simpson abruptly canceled his planned interview with NBC, where a news team had spent several days getting ready for an hourlong exchange, the former football star opted instead for a surprise telephone call to a New York Times reporter who had not been covering his trial.
Times television writer Bill Carter said he picked up his phone shortly after Simpson had canceled his NBC encounter and heard the ex-television sports commentator ready to talk on the record. Carter did not have time to gather questions or even to tape the interview. Instead, he took notes and scrambled to produce a story from what was available.
"Needless to say, I was not as prepared as Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric [of NBC] would have been to question him about the evidence," Carter told Larry King on King's CNN television program Wednesday night.
As a result, Carter's piece on the front page of Thursday's New York Times was short on detail about the trial and lacked many of the answers to questions that had been flooding into NBC studios from the public and press around the world.
Carter did establish a number of key points about Simpson on the record. One point in particular may come back to haunt Simpson, who, despite his acquittal on criminal charges, faces civil litigation. Asked whether he was broke, Simpson told Carter: "I still have my Ferrari. I still have my Bentley. I still have my home in Brentwood and my apartment in New York."
Carter also quotes Simpson as blaming the media for many of his problems with the public and saying the press played the "race deck" in his trial in the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Lyle Goldman.
Some media analysts defended the story. "I don't understand the protest about these interviews anyway. . . . Is it that we're allowing him a voice, that we should deny him free speech?" said Joan Konner, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "He was acquitted, and this is a news story."
Others, however, argued that Carter, and the New York Times, had, in effect, been manipulated by Simpson and his advisers.
And even Simpson's "ambush" tactic has not eliminated criticism of Carter and the Times from some fellow journalists. A number of television journalists, particularly at NBC, were fuming yesterday about the lack of information in the Times story.
"If NBC had done an interview like that, they would have been laughed out of the business," one executive said.
"It really was a soft piece," said Bryce Nelson, a professor at USC's School of Journalism. "If you don't want hardball at NBC, you can get softball from the New York Times. I'm not sure, though, what it says for the New York Times."
What it may say is that Simpson and his legal team now believe that they fare better if they pick reporters who aren't ready for him. A source familiar with the negotiations surrounding possible Simpson interviews said Simpson and some of his advisers made a calculated decision to give the time to Carter because he was an expert on television and was not as familiar with the details of the trial as those who had covered it. Simpson also knew Carter, who had interviewed the football star for a book about "Monday Night Football."
Times editors declined to comment about the story, referring questions to the company's official representative, who defended Carter's reporting.
"Bill is a well-respected reporter," said Nancy Nielsen, the Times' vice president for corporate communications. "But O.J. called out of the blue."
Carter could not be reached yesterday, but Nielsen said that he had received hundreds of phone calls throughout the day. Some of them were from readers protesting the interview, including a few who said they planned to cancel their subscriptions to the paper.
But most, she said, were from members of the media wanting to talk to Carter about Simpson and the interview.