Simpson Case Forces Press to Rethink Role

Article excerpt

YIf there is any good that is coming out of the overwhelming press and electronic media coverage of the O.J. Simpson case, it is that the press is beginning to examine itself and the potential harm. Television and radio should do the same.

During the past two months, a series of major reports on potential distortions of the Simpson case and news in general have been printed _ mostly in journalism trade publications. Several, however, have been published by major newspapers, including two of the largest in the nation: The Los Angeles Times examined the effects of the rapid expansion of Information Age technology _ satellites with microprocessors and cable television. This has bred more competition and therefore more coverage, but it also has led to increasing sensationalism and a trend to interpret the news rather than just report it. The New York Times took these problems a step further _ pointing to a growing anti-press public mood and a cynicism about all public figures. This seems to stem from print and electronic journalists milking every tiny aspect of a major story with interpretation and opinion to gain readers or viewers.

"We're now at a point of believing it's all a scam," The New York Times was told by Thomas E. Mann, director of government studies for the Brookings Institution, which recently completed a study of the press coverage of Congress. "Everyone is looking out for his own narrow interest, and the job of a reporter is to reveal the scam."

This indicates a step beyond the longtime criticism that news coverage is "warped" by bias, wrote William Glaberson of The New York Times. The latest notion is that news coverage declares that all public figures and all people who do "newsworthy things" are suspect.

"In this version of journalism," Glaberson said, "all politicians are manipulative, all business people are venal and all proposals have ulterior motives.

"This journalism may be undermining its own credibility."

While I have always defended the role of journalism in providing information to a self-governing society, I also have criticized in this column the trend in recent years toward interpretation. Specifically, I have criticized the use of unnamed sources, which goes directly against my training.

This was against the policy of most respectable newspapers and magazines before the growth of TV news coverage. Now, reporters for the press and media throw all manner of rumors onto the air or into print, even with direct quotes.

It's a weapon that has been used to smear public figures without naming the source, or to distort a case such as Simpson's, or a major issue before the public.

While I was in California recently, Judge Lance A. Ito expressed disgust about an incorrect report by a Los Angeles TV station that used "informed sources." Ito said the report could bias the case. He said some journalists have become so jaded they no longer care whether what they report is true _ as long as it is provocative. Later he banned the media from part of the jury selection. He reversed that decision Friday.

If the public agrees with Ito, I can't blame them after seeing the way networks, newspapers and magazines have resorted to tabloid journalism in searching for any angle to the Simpson case. Some concern about influencing the trial was reflected when Larry King refused to interview the author of the Nicole Simpson book, but Connie Chung of CBS was more concerned about ratings.

In my book, the press and media have a responsibility to allow the facts to come out in a fair trial.

The traditional defense that the "public deserves to know" is used to cover rumors reported in the guise of "facts." As an editor for 17 years, I know the pressure of walking the line between "beating the competition" and holding a story until the facts are known to be true. …