National Press Corps Sets Up for Cosby Case

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sassy New York reporter didn't mince words: No way, she said, would the criminal trial of Ennis Cosby's alleged killer be mistaken for Simpson Revisited.

"This is so low-key," she said Tuesday morning, standing in a makeshift pressroom in the Doubletree Guest Suites Hotel, across the street from the Santa Monica courthouse--site of the Cosby trial. "There isn't even a fraction of the frantic hysteria that went on during O.J. This isn't even a contest."

This might not be the next O.J. Simpson trial, but they nonetheless are back in earnest. They're America's national press corps, the insatiable hordes, the insanely competitive print and broadcast pack, armed with their press passes, cameras, notebooks, their unending list of questions and their flying elbows, not to mention time demands for their can't-be-missed deadlines.

Seeking Drama

On Tuesday, everyone from the New York Daily News to CNN and Inside Edition dispatched reporters, producers and photographers to the tiny whitewashed Santa Monica courthouse to cover the first big celebrity-related trial to hit town since that cocky ex-football player from Buffalo, N.Y., took center stage here more than a year ago.

They came looking for high theater, because this was the story they believe America wants to see told. So they didn't seem to care that opening arguments in the murder trial of Mikail "Michael" Markhasev were still days away.

Huddled under branches and umbrellas--the lucky broadcast technicians cozied up inside their big satellite trucks, watching World Cup soccer--the national media weren't chased away by gunmetal skies that dumped a steady drizzle on the courthouse grounds, three blocks from the ocean.

And they weren't deterred by the fact that Bill Cosby, one of the country's most beloved entertainers, wasn't expected to appear at the trial of his son's alleged killer--in an attempt to discourage this courthouse circus, this legal-world episode of "The Truman Show."

The Cosby affair was, most journalists acknowledged, a celebrity trial once-removed. Unlike the Simpson case, there would be no Kato Kaelin on the stand, no daily photo ops as the wry-smiling defendant came and went each day with his entourage of attorneys and hangers-on.

Lamented one local television cameraman: "There's a gag order in the courtroom. There are no cameras allowed. And the defense attorney snuck in through a back door where we couldn't even photograph him.

"I say, bring back the days of O.J."

Still, there remained a competitive edge to the coverage. More than 65 news organizations vied for 40 seats reserved for the media by Superior Court Judge David Perez.

At a cost of $100 a week for the expected six-week trial, reporters without courtroom seats--or those assigned to share one with another news organization--could buy a space in a nearby Doubletree Hotel meeting room that received an audio feed of the court proceedings.

To keep away non-payers, an armed Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy kept a list of those allowed in. Same went for the adjacent pressroom--this new Camp Cosby--where reporters paid $100 a week for such services as phone and computer outlets.

Several journalists complained that long gone are the high-access days of the Simpson criminal trial when cameras were allowed into Judge Lance Ito's downtown courtroom and attorneys talked freely with the press.

For the Cosby trial, photographers are being kept outside the courthouse. And three stern-looking guards kept close eye on the comings and goings of reporters.

"Santa Monica is the worst," griped one network cameraman. "It's like Fort Knox in there."

Gregg Canes, a cameraman hired by CNN, understood the new restrictions. "People just got tired of reporters and cameramen swarming anyone vaguely related to the case," he said. "And nowadays, judges are deciding they want a trial, not a media circus."

John Barr, a photographer for People magazine, disagreed. "I'm not willing to accept the pretense that the press has acted like an unwashed herd," he said. "A lot of professionals worked hard to provide fair coverage."

New Set of Rules

During Markhasev's jury selection, Perez allowed only three pool reporters into the courtroom--along with an artist to sketch the proceedings.

At the noon break, a phalanx of 40 journalists formed a horseshoe on the courthouse lawn, circling a veteran Associated Press reporter who briefed them on the morning's events.

Court officials have encouraged such cooperation, because such high-profile court cases pit journalists against each other in unusually fierce competition.

On deadline, reporters have jostled one another for access to a source while camera operators have come to fisticuffs to protect space staked out for their equipment.

"There are tremendous pressures put on people," said Carolyn Fox, executive director of the Radio and Television News Assn. "At major trials, everyone is looking for that unique angle nobody has. And tensions sometimes arise."

Such pressures have occasionally led to a disregard for the rules--such as the television producer and reporter in the O.J. Simpson civil trial who followed bailiffs to a drop-off point to learn the identities of anonymous jurors.

In another instance during the Simpson trial, court officials say, a television station used a private investigator's firm to hire college students as plants in the courthouse lobby to eavesdrop on juror conversations.

Jerrianne Hayslett, public information officer for the Los Angeles Superior Courts, said reporters resent any hint that others might receive special treatment.

"I have been screamed at and cursed in public in front of other people when the press is not happy," said Hayslett, a former editor at the Pasadena Star-News. "One reporter followed me out of the courtroom, into the hallway and elevator outside, using profanity that would curl your toes."

Hayslett said court officials have devised a plan that makes the current trial run more smoothly--even involving the reporters in some decisions.

This could be, court officials hope, the dawn of a new civility in the coverage of high-profile cases.

But there will always be the nonbelievers and malcontents--like the journalist who questioned the media's role at the Cosby trial.

"The only reason we're here is because the victim's last name is Cosby," he said. "We want to exploit this trial into better ratings. But Bill Cosby wants the memory of his son to be sanctified and so he's not coming to the party.

"And I don't blame him."

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