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
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
"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. …