By: M.L. Stein
Debate on fairness of media coverage continues sp.
THE QUESTION OF whether O.J. Simpson can get a fair trial despite cascading media coverage is developing into a hot issue as the story continues to break in startling and controversial ways.
The debate on fairness quickened after the print and broadcast media disclosed frantic 911 calls to the Los Angeles Police Department from Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole, pleading for protection from Simpson, who is charged with murdering her and her friend, Ronald Goldman.
After a 1989 call, according to police records, officers saw Nicole running out of bushes near her home, bruised and scratched.
“He’s going to kill me, he’s going to kill me,” she reportedly told the patrolmen.
Other LAPD documents obtained by a media request under the California Public Records Act, alleged that during a New Year’s Eve party, Simpson punched and kicked his wife, pulled her hair and screamed, “I’ll kill you.”
On June 23, the Los Angeles Times published partial transcripts of two 911 calls made Oct. 25, 1993, by Nicole Brown Simpson in which she asks police to send someone to her house, saying that Simpson had broken down the door and was yelling and swearing at her.
“He’s fucking going nuts,” she tells the police dispatcher.
The day after the Times and other media revealed those 911 calls, a grand jury considering an indictment of Simpson was removed from the case by a Los Angeles judge who declared its members had been tainted by media reports of the case.
In the stunning development, Superior Court Judge Cecil Mills ruled that the panel had “become aware of potentially prejudicial matters,” apparently referring to the 911 tapes.
Mills issued the order after Simpson’s lead attorney, Robert Shapiro, filed a motion to halt the grand jury proceedings, saying he was acting to “protect the due process rights of Mr. Simpson and the integrity of the grand jury system.”
Mills took the case away from the panel, sealed all related records and ordered jurors not to discuss details about their deliberations in public. But one juror told the Times: “Almost everything that the jury knows has been reported in the paper.”
District Attorney Gil Garcetti said he also sought the grand jury’s dismissal in the case, saying he was concerned about heavy news coverage of the tapes.
However, both Shapiro and Garcetti seemingly have lost no opportunity appear before the local and national media with their side of the case.
With the grand jury out of the picture, the charges against Simpson were being aired at a preliminary hearing. Unlike grand jury proceedings, the defense will have an opportunity to cross examine prosecution witnesses at the hearing, which was being covered by a huge swarm of reporters.
Famed trial attorney F. Lee Bailey, a member of Simpson’s legal team, reportedly played a major role in the motion to dismiss the grand jury.
In an interview with the Times, Bailey recalled his handling of the 1966 murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard. He said the prosecution disclosed evidence to the news media that was never presented at the trial.
On June 28, the Times published the results of its poll in which 67% of the 1,023 respondents believed the media have been irresponsible in reporting on the murders, a criticism that has been heard around the country in op-ed pages and public affairs broadcast programs.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had earlier condemned media coverage of the Simpson case, announced in Los Angeles the formation of a Rainbow Commission on Fairness in the Media to combat what he termed media prejudice.
At a press conference, Jackson did not mention the Simpson case but concentrated on charges that the media present negative images of nonwhites and severely limit the number of minorities hired for high-level jobs in broadcasting and on newspapers.
After his announcement, the first question by a broadcast reporter to Jackson was, “How do you view the coverage of the Simpson case?”
Jackson replied: “You just ignored the substance of what I discussed, using your prerogative to determine what would be on the air.”
Metro editor Leo Wolinsky defended the fairness of the Times’ coverage of the Simpson case, asserting that the paper “has the best sources going and we have a hard and fast policy of only using information that is independently verified.”
“If we can’t verify it, we won’t run it,” he added. “Sometimes this means we’re a day late with a particular development.”
As an example, he explained, the Times held off on a coroner’s report item that had been featured on the American Journal television program and picked up by the Associated Press.
It turned out, Wolinsky said, that the item was wrong and the Times printed a correct version the following day.
“We’re trying very hard to be as responsible as possible and to make sure readers are getting accurate information,” the editor stated.
Commenting on the free press-fair trial issue, Sacramento Bee ombudsman Art Nauman said: “I’m not worried. History shows we have survived media frenzy in the past. The American public will sort it out. People today are transfixed by the Simpson story but in the long haul there will be a proper climate for justice and an impartial jury will be found. But it would be nice if the print press keeps a cooler head and not try to compete with TV.”
Nauman said that when the Bee announced that further information on the Simpson story could be obtained on the paper’s audiotex line, 6,000 people phoned in.
Media critic Ben Bagdikian, former Washington Post staffer and former dean of the University of California, Berkeley, graduate school of journalism, described the Southern California media as “sort of manic” in covering sensational stories but opined that some of the “sins” of overzealous reporting “also rests on the heads of the authorities.”
“Judges can stop this kind of media manipulation by the lawyers,” he contended. “But the media definitely have their own problem in all the speculation and analysis of the Simpson case. It can reach the point where the public will have trouble determining what is evidence and what is fantasy.”
Ken Brusic, managing editor the Orange County Register, which put the Simpson 911 tapes on its audiotex service, said of the paper’s coverage of the case: “I’m comfortable with what we’ve done. There is an awful lot of interest in this story. The tapes give a clearer picture of the case. It puts it in perspective.”
Brusic added that the press should not be held responsible for “both the prosecution and defense working very hard to try the case outside the courtroom.”
?( O.J. Simpson’s attorney Robert Shapiro is surrounded by the news media as he leaves the courthouse.) [Photo & Caption]