By: M.L. Stein
Unprecedented numbers of journalists turn out for
opening statements at the murder trial of O.J. Simpson sp.
THE MEDIA TURNED out in unprecedented numbers for opening statements Jan. 23 in the O.J. Simpson double murder trial.
The statements did not come until the next day, but more pretrial motions by the defense and prosecution provided print and broadcast reporters with enough material for at least three front-page stories or nightly newscast leads.
A driving rain did nothing to dampen the media crush on what was supposed to be the opening of the trial itself after weeks of preliminary skirmishing.
Dozens of broadcast and still photographers camped outside the downtown Criminal Courts building, ready for any shot of the trial principals.
As Simpson left the county jail for transport to the courthouse, seven media helicopters hovered overhead.
The 12th-floor print pressroom in the courthouse was full to capacity and beyond. Some reporters sat on stacked-up telephone directories in the hallway to watch the case unfold on the television monitors, prompting one newsman to crack, “The phone books will only cost you $600.”
This was a reference to the $1,200 fee that newspapers and magazines are paying for space and phone hookups in the small pressroom.
Only pool reporters and photographers are allowed inside the courtroom. But the high-intensity media coverage was more evident in the print and broadcast areas on the 12th floor.
One change from previous Simpson court sessions is the fact that security officers now bar from the pressrooms anyone without officially issued badges. Indeed, press credentials were required to even get past the front door of the courthouse.
Another new development is the presence of an interview area on the first floor for whenever the attorneys decide to meet the press.
“There are many more media people here than ever before,” noted Adam Pertman, who recently opened a Los Angeles office for the Boston Globe. “There was a lot of excitement and anxiety in waiting for the opening statements. Reporters were interviewing each other on camera and otherwise. But the real tension hasn’t mounted yet.”
Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Boyarsky felt tension was already high, spurred by “a lot of pressure” from the reporters’ offices.
Boyarsky compared the media intensity to covering a riot or a war, although he indicated that his Simpson-related column, The Spin, which is mainly about media, puts him beyond the battle.
Another columnist, Andrea Peyser of the New York Post, commented, “Exponentially, this trial has become more manic as the days have gone by. The intensity will ebb and flow as it moves on, but this week will be madness.”
Peyser said that, in New York, “this is the biggest story in the world. The tabloids are putting it on Page one every day.”
The trial is also big news among Latino readers of La Opinion, the Spanish-language daily in Los Angeles, said reporter Pilar Marrero.
“Most of our readers are interested in sports, and since Simpson is a sports figure, they see it as a sports event but not as something real. It’s too much to be real,” she said.
There was more fodder opening day for those who label the case a media circus. Comedian Jackie Mason was there as a reporter for BBC radio, and Faye Resnick, author of the tell-all book about her friendship with Nicole Simpson, was rumored to be covering the event for “Hard Copy.”
E&P could not confirm Resnick’s presence in the courthouse, although a “Hard Copy” field representative is on the premises.
“Tabloid journalism and traditional news coverage are meshing here,” commented Cable News Network’s Laura Ornest. “CNN is not entering into this, but it’s all around us.”
Also present, according to Dennis Cauchon of “USA Today,” is friction among the newspeople. “There is more hostility and tension than I’ve ever seen on any story,” he added. “Lots of New York papers are here, and that contributes to it.”
Nick Madigan of Copley Los Angeles Newspapers also viewed the press scene with some gloom.
“The story does not put the media in the best light,” he observed. “It’s bringing out the worst in us. Every sensational report or rumor becomes the subject of endless speculation, when we should be concentrating on facts as we know them.”
Madigan, who put most of the blame on television for the frenzy attached to the Simpson trial, said he believes it’s too late for a calmer coverage.
“The cat is out of the bag,” he said. “This trial is redefining the way journalism will behave in cases like this. Anything is up for grabs.”
Hostility was not overt in the pressroom, but a degree of cynicism and d?j? vu was undeniable.
The jammed-in reporters, many of whom have covered the case from the beginning, often groaned, hooted or laughed, as they watched the posturing and maneuvering of the lawyers on the TV screens. They also exchanged barbed personal comments about the main players in the courtroom, including Judge Lance Ito.
Important as the preliminaries may have been, the feeling was anxiety to get to the main event.
“Let’s get the show on the road,” exclaimed one reporter.
While the “show” was drawing a sellout crowd, Heidi Fleiss, the so-called “Madam to the Stars” proceeded almost unnoticed to another courtroom in the same building, to ask for a retrial of her pandering conviction, normally a sure front-pager.
Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Feldman. who covered her appearance, remarked, “You would have had no trouble getting a seat in the courtroom.”
?( O.J. Simpson defense attorney F. Lee Bailey gestures toward his client during a Jan. 23 hearing-the day that opening arguments were scheduled to begin. A horde of media were on hand for the opening of the trial, but arguments were put off for a day while attorneys debated assorted motions.) [Photo & Caption]