By: M.L. STEIN
IT’S O.J. TIME again in Southern California, but what a difference for the media. It’s just not the same old show ? at least not at the beginning of the trial in the wrongful death suit against Simpson in Santa Monica.
No cameras are allowed in the courtroom by order of Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki. TV reporters who were making live broadcasts from the media center in the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building during Simpson’s murder trial, are now sitting in Fujisaki’s courtroom with pad and pencil just like the newspaper reporters.
“Television is a visual medium,” ABC Channel 11’s John North said glumly. “Without cameras we’re very handicapped.”
Added Ron Olsen of KTLA Channel 5: “Public interest is still high in the O.J story, but with no live capability, our editors are not as interested.”
High public interest was not apparent at the Santa Monica courthouse, where virtually all of the spectators were from the media. This was expected to change when Simpson takes the stand in the suit by family members of the murder victims Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman. Simpson was acquitted of the slayings.
Because there is no pool TV camera (or still photographer) in the courtroom, the closed-circuit television feed relied on by print and broadcast reporters in the criminal trial is just a memory.
The best they could get was judicial permission for a live audio feed into the pressroom in the Doubletree Hotel across the street from the courthouse. That privilege immediately was contested by the broadcasters who wanted the feed into their trailers in the courthouse parking lot. At this writing, the matter was being argued before the presiding judge of the Superior Court. There seemed to be no possibility that cameras will be let into the courtroom, but an appellate court, responding to a media suit, said sketch artists could go in.
News pickings were slim outside the courtroom. Banned were corridor and sidewalk interviews with attorneys and others involved in the case, a practice that lent so much color to the criminal trial. At the start, the judge issued a gag order so strict that attorneys for both sides wouldn’t give the media the time of day when they emerged from the courtroom.
Although the gag rule was softened by an appellate court, lawyers were still hesitant to talk to the press.
“The appeals court was so vague on the issue that the attorneys are not sure what they can say, so they are saying nothing,” said Associated Press’ Linda Deutsch, one of the veterans of the first trial who was back for the second.
The higher court struck down some portions of Fujisaki’s order, allowing witnesses to speak to the media and attorneys were permitted to discuss “judicial proceedings” with reporters.
Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Boyarsky, who again focused his “The Spin” column on the new Simpson trial, suggested the gag order was a futile effort to keep a lid on the proceedings.
“This is too big to be confined to the narrow boundaries of a Santa Monica courtroom,” he commented. “It will be discussed all over town, all over the country. But discussions will be based on slanted leaks, inaccurate rumors and paid revelations. . . . The gag orders and media restrictions will backfire. That’s why they should be lifted.”
Still, some of the trappings of the first trial remained. Television and still photographers roamed over the lawn in front of the courthouse, filming everything they could, which wasn’t much ? with one exception.
Simpson showed up on the third day of jury selection, prompting a mass photo shoot outside the courthouse. However, the former football star and actor also adhered to Fujisaki’s order, declining to be interviewed. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department kindly strung up yellow tape to provide an enclosure for the media on the grass.
“The press has been very well behaved,” said deputy George Ducoulombier. “We are trying to meet all the media needs.”
A few demonstrators and pin vendors ? a staple of the criminal trial ? took up positions on the lawn, but they were a far cry from the dozens of them who contributed to the so-called circus atmosphere around the downtown court building in the first trial.
One holdover, “Melrose” Larry Green, sported a sign reading “Bankrupt O.J. Now,” and another that inexplicably announced: “I’m in Howard Stern’s Movie.”
Amid all this, there were some improvements for the press this time. Fujisaki’s courtroom is slightly larger than Judge Lance Ito’s in the Criminal Courts Building, allowing seating for 40 newspeople, compared to 26 at the first trial.
The seating is being allocated by a media committee in contrast to the criminal trial where Ito and a Superior Court press attach? decided who got in and who didn’t.
Even so, 70 media organizations applied for courtroom access, forcing the committee to require that some newspapers and broadcasters share seating, according to Deutsch, a committee member and a pool reporter during the jury-selection phase.
Another plus for reporters is the pressroom at the Doubletree. It’s bigger than the one at the Criminal Courts Building and its occupants can enjoy the amenities of the hotel, which include a decent restaurant.
“So far, I haven’t seen any roaches climbing the walls,” joked Matt Krasnowksi of Copley News Service, in a reference to the press quarters during the initial Simpson trial.
Pressroom seats for the expected four months duration of the trial go at $1,380 apiece with coffee and copy paper ? but not phones ? thrown in.
There was a class-reunion air around the room as veterans of the first trial greeted each other.
“It’s fun to see old friends again,” commented the AP’s Mike Fleeman.
Reflecting the coverage of Simpson between trials by several of the reporters, Michelle Caruso of the New York Daily News observed, “I’ve never left the story.”
?(No camerqas are allowed in the courtroom of the O.J. Simpson civil trial by order of Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki. But outside the courthouse is another story) [Photo & Caption]
?(Unlike Judge Lance Ito, who presided at O.J. Simpson’s criminal trial and gave the media unlimited access to his courtroom, Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki (above), who is presiding at Simpson’s civil trial, has placed stringent limits on media coverage inside his courtroom) [Photo & Caption]