By: JODI B. COHEN
”It’s been called the trial of the century; it’s also been called the nine-month root canal,” Bob McGruder, president of the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) and Detroit Free Press executive editor, told a luncheon audience at the annual APME conference in Denver.
McGruder’s comment came while introducing O.J. Simpson trial prosecutor Christopher Darden, who took the podium to criticize the media’s coverage of the trial, and in the same breath, thank them.
On leave from the Los Angeles district attorney’s office until the end of the year, Darden spoke fairly candidly about trial coverage, TV cameras in the courtroom, and his intense dissatisfaction with Judge Lance Ito. He also expressed his feelings about the current Simpson civil trial.
Darden criticized Ito failing to “maybe act like a judge” to take control of the proceedings, but praised civil trial Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki for taking control of the proceedings. And he reiterated his position against cameras in the courtroom.
“I will say it again; I don’t think there needs to be cameras in the courtroom, and I think the gag order [at the Simpson civil trial] is appropriate,” he said. “I think cameras hurt, distort and inhibit justice.”
Darden, who received a $1.3 million advance on his book, In Contempt, will actually lose a potential revenue source as a result of Fujisaki’s ruling to not allow courtroom cameras in the Simpson civil trial. He revealed that he was asked to act as a commentator were the trial televised.
In response to a question inquiring as to whether he is still bitter about the outcome of the Simpson criminal trial, Darden said it’s actually the media that is portraying him as being bitter.
“That’s the thing about you guys,” he said. “I am not bitter at all. I see O.J. on television, I don’t clench my teeth; I change the channel and watch something interesting. I am not the victim, he’ll get his in the end; we all get ours in the end.”
Darden defended his making money off the trial telling editors in attendance, “You guys all made money off of it, yes?”
The attorney said that although he made money from his book, his goal was also to chronicle the prosecution’s side of the case.
“I think it is important to hear both sides of the issue, and the book is important to me for that reason,” he said. “The trial is history and people have been writing history books for years.”
Losing his cool
He became angry when, during a question-and-answer session, an editor in the audience asked him about the Laura Hart McKinney tapes ? which documented police detective Mark Fuhrman making his racist remarks ? and the prosecution’s line of questioning for Fuhrman.
“You are a managing editor?” he said. “See, show me where it has ever been established that we knew Fuhrman was lying about the tapes?”
He accused the editor of twisting the question and when the editor tried to interrupt, Darden stated, “I knew what you were going to say, I can smell bullshit. I think what Fuhrman said, it sounded like bullshit to me, but I couldn’t prove it.”
He said the prosecution looked everywhere for the tapes and couldn’t find them. “Then again,” he said, “they were probably already in [Simpson attorney Johnnie] Cochran’s safe.”
Darden was not paid for his appearance at APME, stating he was urged to address the group by an editor who helped him with his book.
His initial response, he said, was, “What if they don’t like me?”
Throughout his speech, he fired off harsh criticisms, bits of humor and suggestions.
“If the New York Daily News is here, I have a love-hate relationship there,” he said. “I hate them because they ran a front-page article that said that I said that my life wasn’t worth a plum nickel . . . and that was on the day when someone was giving me a $1.3 million advance.”
Darden said, however, he forgave the newspaper because it bought the second serial rights to his book.
He said he hated his local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times, in Walnut Creek, Calif., because they “trashed me worse than anyone.” He said at the same time he loves the newspaper because it is still his home paper.
He thanked the media for showing him ? during his childhood in a predominantly black town while attending a predominantly black school ? that African Americans were being treated differently elsewhere.
“I found out that, hey, I am different and we were being treated differently. . . . I heard about Martin Luther King from you,” he said. “I learned about the civil rights movement from you. I learned about the Vietnam War from you.”
He added, however, his belief that the press, unlike when he was growing up, puts a spin on stories to “make them all sexy.”
“I’ll tell you, sometimes I look in your newspapers and I see things about me and it’s tabloid stuff,” he said. “Why do you have that stuff in your newspaper? Why do you need that kind of stuff?
“It’s gotten to the point where we can’t tell the difference between legitimate news from the so-called tabloids,” he said. “I wish you would define that line, and make that line more clear for all of
us. . . . I wish you would return to the old days when you reported the news and didn’t put a spin on it and didn’t tell us how to think about things.”
Darden said he understands that the press has a commitment to be the watchdogs and to protect democracy ? and he believes firmly in the First Amendment.
He said he also knows the press has a responsibility to get answers, but he asked the group, “What are you doing to yourselves?”
‘Pimps’ for the defense team
“When you reflect back to the trial, were you used? Do you realize you were being pimped by the defense team, and that every day they used you to communicate to the jury?” he asked. “Did you know you were being used to destroy justice and preclude justice in the O.J. Simpson case?”
He criticized the Los Angeles Times for having “some kind of pipeline” to Cochran’s office, because, he said, there were so many one-sided articles about the trial that the paper almost never saw it from the defense perspective.
“Did you have a reporter sitting there in his office all day sipping coffee?” he said. “You would say the prosecution wasn’t talking. Okay, we weren’t talking, so what? Does that mean you are to distort what happened?”
Darden was critical of reporters’ excuse for publishing what he believed to be one-sided stories ? especially the line, “We have to go with what we have.”
“What the hell does that mean?” he said. “When you write one-sided stories, maybe you want to include a disclaimer that says, reader be warned, this may only be a half-truth.”
Darden said there are ethics rules that apply to all lawyers and if the Simpson defense team didn’t want to abide by those rules, it didn’t mean he wasn’t going to.
“That’s what we meant when we didn’t want to discuss the far-fetched ridiculous notions that the defense team would throw around ? the allegations and your questions,” he said. “We sometimes didn’t want to sink that low.”
Unfortunately, he said, the press published them anyway.
“No comment meant everything to us other than yeah, that’s right, yeah, that’s true, yeah, you got us,” he said.
“Let me just tell you something you may not know, the things you write and the things you say . . . they hurt. You write those negative articles about people calling me inept, incompetent and stupid, and I take it personally. It hurts me when you write about unfounded allegations based on rumor.”
Darden said he found most reporters covering the trial to be lazy, and lacking the desire to travel outside their offices to track down the information they need.
“They sit in their offices, on the telephone and conduct investigations, gathering information from the telephone from the office,” he said. “Some of your reporters are lazy and they won’t get off their cans and walk across the street to find out what the truth is, and that is sad.”
Darden commended the press for giving his book fair reviews and somewhat restoring his image following the trial.
The press, he said, is important to him because it does hold government officials to some standards of conduct which he believes is important.
“Just be careful, think about the families, think about the people you are writing about,” he said. “And I want you to make a promise to me today that you will not write anything bad about me again.”
After the luncheon, he was asked what solid solutions he has to improve reporting and decision making for editors.
“It’s just priority. . . . You have to make a conscious decision and question what kind of paper you want to be,” he said. “Do you want to be on the low end or high end? Really, I like reading the newspapers when the words are a bit difficult, you know what I mean?”
To applause and laughter at the close of his talk, Darden said to the editors: “The gloves fit, you knew damn well the gloves fit.”
?(“I’ll tell you, sometimes I look in your newspapers and I see things about me and it’s tabloid stuff,” he said. “Why do you have that stuff in your newspaper? Why do you need that kind of stuff?”) [Caption]
?(-Christopher Darden) [Photo]