The Wrong Villain: The O.J. Simpson Media Circus Pitched Its Tent Far beyond the Range of the Cameras in the Courtroom

By Goldfarb, Ronald | American Journalism Review, December 1995 | Go to article overview

The Wrong Villain: The O.J. Simpson Media Circus Pitched Its Tent Far beyond the Range of the Cameras in the Courtroom


Goldfarb, Ronald, American Journalism Review


Of the more than 1,200 journalists who covered the O.J. Simpson trial worldwide, only 27 were actually in the courtroom. The rest watched the trial on television, and wrote their newspaper or magazine stories, books or television commentaries from their positions in the television audience. That fact is ironic since so many members of the media have joined in the general public's complaint about cameras in the courtroom.

What is wrong with televising trials? Why all the after-the-fact moralizing about the overexposure television provided to the O.J. Simpson judicial morality show? If television is to be faulted, is it the commotion outside the court building, the endless programs rehashing the trial or the courtroom camera itself that is to blame?

The case was fascinating drama, and worldwide coverage was extraordinary (one account had over 100 million viewers watching the verdict). Because of the cameras in the courtroom, the trial presented the most pervasive public picture in history of how the justice system works, and how it fails. Perversely, while television is arguably a neutral mirror, it has borne much of the blame for the faults that critics have found with the trial.

Interesting courtroom dramas such as the Simpson spectacle have always generated keep public interest. The history of crime news can be chronicled by periodic causes celebres: from John Peter Zenger, Aaron Burr, and Sacco and Vanzetti to the Chicago Seven, Watergate and Iran-contra. Because of the issues involved, along with their inherently dramatic natures, criminal cases have captured the imagination of notable fiction and nonfiction writers such as Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Zola, Kafka, Capote and Mailer.

The fact is, criminal trials engage the press and the public as few events do. An article (by one of Simpson's lawyers) in the San Jose Mercury News pointed out that there have been countless "trials of the century": among many others, the Charlie Chaplin paternity case, the Nuremberg war crime trials, the Alger Hiss perjury trial, the Rosenbergs, espionage trial, Jack Ruby, and the trials of Sirhan Sirhan, Charles Manson, John Hinckley, Bernhard Goetz.

Sensational cases won't go away. Nor will the public's appetite to see justice done or, if you are more cynical, to lap up the juicy sex, sin and gore of life.

When crime news has escalated from questions of bad taste to legal prejudice, courts have intervened: in cases of contempt by newspapers, in reversals of criminal convictions because of pretrial publicity, and more recently on the question of cameras in courts. In the mid-1960s, the Supreme Court issued two landmark decisions. It overruled both the Ohio conviction of Dr. Sam Sheppard because of excessive and unruly press misconduct in the court (a Roman holiday of virulent courtroom misbehavior by the print press was proven) and the Texas conviction of financial wheelerdealer Billie Sol Estes because of disruptive television coverage. (At the pretrial hearing to ban cameras, wires snaked through the courtroom and there was constant commotion, but that was not so at the trial where television coverage was limited.) The historic bar association's and judicial ban on televised trials remained. But it was unclear whether the Supreme Court had ruled that the mere presence of cameras in courts was constitutionally impermissible or whether that was only so when specific, proven misconduct in court was caused by television's presence.

In 1981, a criminal conviction of Miami Beach policemen caught in a burglary was appealed to the Supreme Court. Although the television coverage in Miami was circumscribed and limited by the trial judge, the question was whether televised proceedings created, per se, a constitutional impediment without any proof of actual prejudicial behavior. The Supreme Court held that states are free to experiment with televised court proceedings; the high court would intervene only when a constitutional question was raised by the kind of specific misconduct that occurred in the Sheppard and Estes cases. …

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