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Television

From the Archives: The trials of TV news

Lance Ito

Judge Lance Ito holds up an enlarged proof sheet of crime scene photos during O.J. Simpson’s double-murder trial in Los Angeles. 

(Fred Prouser / AP)

Once again, the entertainment story of the year didn’t come from Holly wood, Broadway or the television networks’ entertainment divisions. The year’s most gripping story began with sketchy reports of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson, the former wife of football great O.J. Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. By the time Simpson was about to be charged with the murders, what seemed like the ultimate “tabloid TV” story had busted out of the realm of “Hard Copy” and “Inside Edition.” When Simpson and Al Cowlings took their Friday evening ride across Southland freeways, virtually every broadcast and cable channel carried the story live. And the frenzy was just beginning. Our TV critic watched it all, and he thinks the media have a few things to answer for.

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“Good morning. I’m Big Blue Eyes, and welcome to this live telecast of the Trial of the Ages that I am co - anchoring with our esteemed legal analyst, Professor Poppycock.

“The charge, regarding the TV-fed spectacular of the year, is that in 1994, much of television did overcook, distort, falsely inflate and often report untruths about the homicides that resulted in former football great O.J. Simpson being charged with the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman. And that said action diverted public attention from more significant matters as TV newscasting traveled down a tabloidesque road from which it may not return.

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“On a personal note, speaking as a respected professional journalist who categorically would never inject himself or his opinion into a news story, I think the charge sucks!”

Professor Poppycock: “Sucks” being a term with limited legal standing, of course.

Big Blue Eyes: Excellent point. And we’d be remiss, Professor P., if we didn’t also point out that the real predators in this case--Time, Newsweek and mainstream newspapers--initially faced the same charge as television, but cowardly pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of occasional overzealousness and were given probation.

Ah . . . but I see everyone is now in the courtroom, and the Trial of the Ages is about to begin with the prosecution’s first witness, Penny Q. Public.

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Prosecutor: Ms. Public, please recall your activities on the afternoon of June 17, 1994.

Penny Q. Public: Well, y’know, stuff about the murders of O.J.'s ex-wife and that Goldman young man, and O.J. being blamed, had been all over TV, and it was just so crazy, who could believe it? So I was watching TV ‘cause this was the day O.J. was supposed to give himself up, and the reporters, camera crews and everyone were hanging around his Brentwood mansion and all that. And the next thing I know, this police guy is on the tube saying they don’t know where O.J. is.

And then his lawyer, Robert Shapiro, is on TV asking O.J. to give himself up. And I’m really interested ‘cause this is O.J. Simpson. And the next thing I see are live pictures of that white Ford Bronco on the freeway somewhere. And they’re saying O.J. is inside and the driver is his friend, Al Cowlings. And they’re being chased by all these cop cars. And it’s just amazing, ‘cause we don’t know where they’re going or what will happen when they get there, and this is not one of those cops-and-robbers shows, it’s live and it’s real, like the Super Bowl. And I betcha everybody in America was watching.

Prosecutor: And then what happened?

Penny Q. Public: After some time, the Bronco pulled up to O.J.'s house, and I was sorta worried ‘cause the cops were there and it looked like there could be a shootout or something. But after awhile, Cowlings got out, and then O.J. got out and it was over.

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Prosecutor: If there had been bloodshed, would you have wanted to see it?

Penny Q. Public: No way, ‘cause I had my kids there too, y’know. But there wouldn’t have been a choice, ‘cause it was live.

Prosecutor: Thank you, Ms. Public.

Defense attorney: Just one thing in cross-examination, Ms. Public. You said you were transfixed by what was happening on TV that day. Why? Why do you think TV covered it live, and why did you and your family keep watching?

Penny Q. Public: It was O.J. Simpson, that’s why. O.J. was a national hero. I’m sure that was the reason for the live coverage, and that’s why we were watching.

Judge: Redirect?

Prosecutor: Yes, your honor, just a couple of questions. Ms. Public, was O.J. Simpson your hero? Or your family’s hero? Or the hero of anyone that you know?

Penny Q. Public: Well, no, now that you mention it. Except for those Hertz commercials he did, I hadn’t thought of the guy or heard his name in years. I mean, he seemed like a nice guy and all that but. . . .

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Prosecutor: Then, tell us, Ms. Public, why did you refer to him as a national hero?

Penny Q. Public: Well, ‘cause they were saying it all the time on TV, I guess.

Prosecutor: Thank you. Nothing further.

Big Blue Eyes: Keeping my own opinion out of this while we wait for the next witness, I’m betting that Penny Q. Public’s middle name is Quisling.

Professor Poppycock: An intriguing point that I’ll pretend to understand as the camera moves in for my close - up.

Prosecutor: Please state your name and occupation.

Witness: Sammy Sleaze, producer of the nationally syndicated hit series “We’re Watching Your Underpants.”

Prosecutor: Mr. Sleaze, what has this case meant to your show?

Sammy Sleaze: Wow! It’s not only brought us into the inner circle of so-called legitimate news, we are the inner circle. No more barriers, baby, we’re them and they’re us.

Prosecutor: Please elaborate, and remember you’re under oath.

Sammy Sleaze: Hey, would I lie? Just a joke. The truth is, we were already on the map big time. I didn’t think it could get any better than Tonya Harding and Michael Jackson--you know, when the fancy-pants media grabbed our coattails and dove into the mud right with us. But this O.J thing has been a gift, making it impossible for the public to separate us from the so-called legitimate media. We wrote the primer, they’re following it. There were periods in 1994 when all the network newsmagazines were wall to wall with O.J. stuff--and most of it junk, too--that they were using just to give the impression that they were on top of this story, a story that all of us inflated like hell just to give us an excuse to cover it.

Sometimes they even use our tape or our quotes in their newscasts. And why not? We’re malicious, they’re malicious. We invade privacy, they invade privacy. We spread rumors and innuendo, and so do they. We occupy the same three-ring circus outside the courthouse, and all of us are after the same stuff. We interview anyone with a story to tell, even if it sounds crazy, and so do they.

Oh sure, they grouse about us paying big bucks for interviews, and it is true that when you’re paid money you tend to perform for your cash by embellishing. All right, even lying. But they’re paying off people too, paying them off with national exposure that translates to a bunch of other opportunities and probably money down the line. So what’s the difference?

Prosecutor: This is providing the public information?

Sammy Sleaze: Get off it. We’re not in the information business. We’re in the diversion business, and so are the other guys, no matter how many Tom Brokaws and Connie Chungs they throw at you.

Prosecutor: What have you gained personally from this case?

Sammy Sleaze: Plenty. Several networks have contacted me about a job, and my agent is working out a deal with one now.

Big Blue Eyes: As this witness leaves and another is called, Professor P., could you say if the testimony we just heard is significant?

Professor Poppycock: My, yes. Sammy appears to have a very good agent. I’d like his name.

Prosecutor: Your name and occupation, please.

Witness: Earnest Ernie. I’m a local TV reporter.

Prosecutor: Is it fair to say that your coverage of the Simpson-Goldman case has been an exception to the rule?

Earnest Ernie: That’s right. Oh, I haven’t been perfect. It’s not easy trying to be ethical when everyone else is getting a lot of attention by vamping. And to be fair, there were times when I did some things I shouldn’t have--you know, reported some unfounded rumors and shot from the hip without proper sources just to keep up with the competition. But I can honestly say that, in most cases, I had integrity and covered this story responsibly.

Judge: Cross-examination?

Defense attorney: When you did do a good job, Earnest, did you get credit for it from outside the station?

Earnest Ernie: No, and that steams me. That guy who writes about TV for the newspaper? He griped plenty about the bad coverage--and there was plenty to gripe about--but he never wrote one word about the good work that I did. And not having recognition from outside my station made it harder for me to justify what I was doing to my superiors.

Prosecutor: One thing in redirect, Earnest. We’ll stipulate that you didn’t get enough credit from the paper. But do you agree that the point--the crucial one--is that people covering this story could make choices? It was possible to take the high road, as you did, and still survive, correct?

Earnest Ernie: That’s right.

Big Blue Eyes: Before the next witness, tell us who is winning the trial so far, Professor P.

Professor Poppycock: Rather than attempt to answer your insipid question, I believe it would be in my better interest to appear temporarily disabled by the coughing spasm that I’m now faking.

Prosecutor: Your name and what you do for a living, please.

Witness: Marsha Malarkey, reporter for “Action Ad-Lib.”

Prosecutor: Is it fair to say your local newscast was among the most aggressive in covering the Simpson-Goldman case in 1994, and that you delivered daily and sometimes hourly live updates even when there was nothing to report?

Marsha Malarkey: So big deal.

Prosecutor: You regularly reported pseudo events, isn’t that correct?

Marsha Malarkey: Well . . .

Prosecutor: You and your “Action Ad-Lib” colleagues broke--and I use that word advisedly--stories about DNA and other alleged blood and forensic evidence and articles of clothing related to the case that were tenuous at best, and often unsubstantiated, isn’t that right, Ms. Malarkey? Did it live, sometimes off the top of your head, potentially swaying potential jurors and shaping public opinion about the case based on possibly erroneous information, isn’t that right?

Marsha Malarkey: All right, well, sort of. But lighten up. Everyone else was doing it, and sometimes--just like you lawyers--we have to do things we normally wouldn’t do just for competitive reasons. It’s our business. We can’t worry about consequences. Our job is to report, not keep secrets. And if we make a mistake now and then and hurt a few people, it’s the price we pay for serving the people’s right to know and making the news exciting and immediate. This is live TV. No safety nets. I’d like to see our critics try doing it without making errors. It’s impossible.

Prosecutor: Exactly the point.

Defense attorney: Just a couple of questions, Ms. Malarkey. Is it true that you and your “Action Ad-Lib” colleagues have been criticized by both sides in this case?

Marsha Malarkey: You better believe it.

Defense attorney: Then you must be doing something right, wouldn’t you say?

Marsha Malarkey: Absolutely.

Prosecutor: Redirect, your honor. Why, Ms. Malarkey, if you’re criticized by both sides, does it mean you’re doing something right? It’s just as likely, isn’t it, that you’re doing nothing right? No need to answer.

Big Blue Eyes: Even viewing it objectively with my vast experience as a widely worshiped, award-winning journalist, I’d say that was a low blow from the prosecutor, and by allowing it, the judge opened the door for an appeal. Wouldn’t you agree, Professor P.? Professor P.? We’ll get back to Professor P. when he stops coughing.

Prosecutor: Your name and occupation, sir?

Witness: Quentin Quack, news director, “Live and in Your Face.”

Prosecutor: Mr. Quack. I was wondering, given the time and energy you and your staff devoted to the Simpson-Goldman case, do you think it might have behooved you to give just a tad more coverage to the recent financial crisis in Orange County?

Quentin Quack: It’s just not a TV kind of story, man. And give us some credit. We did show that picture of an orange.

Prosecutor: Getting back to the Simpson-Goldman case, how do you defend your irresponsible coverage?

Quentin Quack: If I’ve been so irresponsible, then why is everybody now talking about the issue of spousal abuse? I’m a hero. Coverage like mine--and I don’t think playing Nicole’s 911 calls about O.J. 30 times was that excessive-- is responsible for the national debate that’s going on right now.

Prosecutor: So you believe that the end justifies the means, no matter how odious are those means?

Quentin Quack: Well, I wouldn’t say that.

Prosecutor: Was there also some higher purpose, other than creating the illusion of news, for your chopper to repeatedly shoot live footage of Mr. Simpson’s house from the skies? Shoot live chopper footage of him in a police van traveling to and from the courthouse? Shoot live footage of attorneys coming and going?

Quentin Quack: Well . . .

Prosecutor: The titillating teases and big, screaming graphics advertising O.J. rumors and other undocumented nonsense in your error-filled newscast-- day after day after day after day-- were they justified too?

Quentin Quack: The public wants it. That’s our job--to give the public what it wants.

Prosecutor: So if you thought the public wanted to see you walk nude across the screen, you’d do that too?

Quentin Quack: Well, no, I. . . .

Prosecutor: Aren’t you and your counterparts guilty of creating public appetites so that you can feed those appetites? And haven’t all of you now plunged beyond a point of no return?

Quentin Quack: Yes, I mean no. . . .

Prosecutor: Have you ever heard the expression, Old Yellowstain?

Quentin Quack: Old Yellowstain? Why, no, I don’t believe so.

Prosecutor: Come now. Surely you must remember. You were the newscast captain, Quack. The commander, Quack. Isn’t Old Yellowstain the nickname your “Live and in Your Face” staff gave you because of your policy of covering the Simpson-Goldman story with yellow journalism?

Quentin Quack: That’s a lie. You’ll hear nothing but lies about me from the staff. Malicious gossip. I don’t know why they ganged up on me like that. Except that they were disloyal. Now, I demand to set the record straight. I have not made a single mistake as news director of “Live and In Your Face,” and I can prove it, and my record has been spotless, and I don’t want it smirched by a whole lot of lies and distortions by disloyal staff. It was a constant battle. Always the same thing, the staff undermining my authority while I. . . .

Judge: Mr. Quack, put those steel balls back into your pocket.

Quentin Quack: Now, starting right with the mistakes made on the bloody glove business for which I was blamed. The interview with the psychic, the swami, the man who told us exclusively that he was Charles Manson’s twin. Sure, blame me for those too, and everything that went wrong with our coverage of this story.

I’m the victim of the biggest conglomeration of lies and distortions and half-truths I have ever seen, and I’m extremely glad you asked me because I want to get my side of it on the record. The real truth is I was betrayed and thrown and double-crossed by my assistant news director so that I was one man against the entire newsroom. Now you take the bloody cap business, and then the bloody golf bag business. Why, if that wasn’t an outright conspiracy to protect a malefactor from justice and I could prove to this court geometrically. . . .

Prosecutor: That will be all, Mr. Quack.

Quentin Quack: Huh? Oh, yes. Well, naturally, I can only cover these things roughly from memory, but if I’ve left anything out. . . .

Big Blue Eyes: I see that the Trial of the Ages has concluded, and because this skewed account is being created by a newspaper, the preliminary verdict is that television is guilty as charged. A final verdict awaits in 1995. For my colleague, Professor Poppycock, now resting quietly in another room, this is Big Blue Eyes saying, “See you at the next Trial of the Ages, America.”

MORE:

‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ on FX focuses on the lawyers and the lawyering

Is there anything more to say about O.J. Simpson’s murder trial? Two projects say yes

With ‘People v. O.J. Simpson,’ Ryan Murphy’s track record on race goes on trial 

One key player wouldn’t talk for ESPN’s Simpson murder epic ‘O.J.: Made in America’


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