Report Card on O.J. Press Coverage with Americans Divided over Simpson's Acquittal, Media Critics Are Calling for Better Coverage of the Nation's Racial Differences

By Alexandra Marks, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 1995 | Go to article overview

Report Card on O.J. Press Coverage with Americans Divided over Simpson's Acquittal, Media Critics Are Calling for Better Coverage of the Nation's Racial Differences


Alexandra Marks, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


MORE than almost any case in recent history, the O.J. Simpson trial shed a stark light on the unsettling racial divide between whites and African-Americans in the United States. From detective Mark Fuhrman's bigoted ramblings to defense attorney Johnnie Cochran's controversial condemnation of the racism that can seep into the criminal-justice system, the volatile subject repeatedly flared, confusing and enraging Americans on both sides. Not surprisingly, the media have been both lauded and reproached for their handling of the issue. Critics charge the natural tendency of the press to simplify and heighten controversy exacerbated racial differences and did little to enhance understanding. Advocates of the press say it dealt responsibly with an intractable issue that has troubled the nation's conscience, particularly since the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954. They argue the media should not function as social reformers but as mirrors of social reality. "Journalists have been responsible, for the most part, in passing along responsible opinions and not playing on the fringes of the arguments," says Peter Herford, professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York. But critics contend the mainstream media suffered from the same denial that makes the country as a whole uncomfortable with discussions about race. They argue that the press could have delved more deeply into the causes of the widely divergent opinions and facilitated a national conversation. Media as interlocutor "With the coverage of the polls, they kept telling us how divided we were, but they don't tell us how they got there," says Jon Katz, media critic for Wired magazine. From June 17, 1994, when Mr. Simpson was arrested for the brutal murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, polls consistently showed the vast majority of whites believed Simpson was guilty, while almost as many blacks thought the former football hero was innocent. "What people are doing is putting their judgment of the fairness of the whole justice system into the equation, and I think the news media have to cover that," says Gary Orfield, professor of education at Harvard University and a leading researcher on desegregation. Before the verdict, which catapulted the race issue onto the front pages, most of the major papers and the networks did occasional stories throughout the year-long process that looked at the causes of the divergent opinions. …

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