I read this article, “New Doc Features Black Journalists Who Covered OJ Simpson Trial,” expecting to see names of journalists I knew who covered the O.J. Simpson trial. I knew who attended it because I kept a daily list. Among the regulars were Andrea Ford, Dennis Schatzman, Janet Gilmore, Myra Ming, Bill Whitaker, and above all, photojournalist Haywood Galbreath, who was in court every day that trial was in session. Others attended from time to time as well.
While Star Jones, who is quoted in this story, did show up occasionally, although I remember her more from the Rodney King beating trial days, most of the people quoted in this story I never met or saw in the courtroom or in the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building 9th floor media center. I wondered after reading the story, why the writer, Matthew Carey, didn’t interview those who were there.
It’s a given he couldn’t have interviewed Andrea Ford or Dennis Schatzman, as both died years ago. (Schatzman, who reported for the African-American newspaper The Los Angeles Sentinel and made race the theme in his trial coverage, wrote an excellent book, The Simpson Trial in Black and White, with a white colleague, Tom Elias.) But Janet Gilmore, who reported for the Los Angeles Daily News is now and has been at UC Berkeley for more than a decade; Myra Ming, who was KTTV’s reporter/producer on the scene and went on to become a Nieman fellow, and Bill Whitaker with CBS News where he is now a 60 Minutes correspondent, shouldn’t have been hard to find.
And Haywood Galbreath, whose attendance at the Simpson trial rivals only AP reporter Linda Deutsch, to my knowledge, not only continues his photojournalism career via his H. G. Star-1 News Photos agency and published The O. J. Simpson Murder Trial: the complete photo journal of the trial of the century, he readily talks about being a black journalist covering the trial and probably has the most stark and telling stories about that experience.
At best, one or two of those Carey quoted in this article might have shown up in the courtroom once or twice during the nine months of the trial from opening statements to closing arguments and the four months of pre-trial proceedings, although I don’t recall seeing them. Otherwise, they must have covered the trial from their newsrooms, offices and other non-courtroom locations, via TV, like millions of other viewers.
In Carey’s article, former USA Today DeWayne Wickham recalled his frustration that his reporting didn’t get picked up by his own paper, which he implies in this story was racially based.
“I was a black journalist who reported a story that raised serious questions about the prosecution’s conduct of that trial, and most white folks ignored my reporting.”
Whether or not that was the case, I can’t say. What I do know, though, is that the two USA Today reporters who were consistently in the courtroom were women, so Wickham must have been covering it remotely. Plus, considering the number of African-American journalists who were assigned to onsite, i.e. courtroom, coverage, Wickham’s situation seems to have been more of an anomaly than the rule.
As I read the caption of a photograph used to illustrated Cary’s story, a bias of my own bubbled up. The picture shows Simpson getting out of a car.
The caption reads: “AFP/Getty Images”
This photo and caption taps into my bias in three ways of how the news media distorts and misinforms the public.
(1) The picture is of Simpson wearing civilian clothes,
(2) The caption says Simpson is arriving at the Santa Monica Courthouse,
(3) The caption says (ungrammatically) “where the first day of opening arguments.”
(1) During Simpson’s 1995 murder trial, he was in custody, locked up in the Los Angeles County Jail, where he wore orange jumpsuits from the day he was arrested on June 17, 1994, until his acquittal on Oct. 3, 1995. His lawyers brought civilian clothes to the courthouse for Simpson to change into in a locked cell there for his courtroom appearances. Never during that trial was he wearing civilian clothes while riding around in a car.
(2) The murder trial, which Carey’s story seems to be about, was held in a downtown Los Angeles courthouse, not in Santa Monica. What was held in Santa Monica was Simpson’s 1996-97 civil trial which resulted in a $33 million judgment against him. So, unsuspecting and otherwise uninformed readers of this story won’t understand the difference.
(3) Opening arguments? What the heck are opening arguments? That is a creation of the news media, something I didn’t realize until I worked for the court. Trial attorneys make opening statements. They state to a jury the facts of the case as they plan to present it and the evidence. Arguments come at the end of the trial, after the attorneys have presented their case, and argue why the jury should decide in their and their clients’ favor.
I’m disappointed that Carey, who is billed at the end of his story as editor-in-chief of nonfictionfilm.com. During the Simpson trial he worked for CNN’s LA bureau, writing on media coverage of the case didn’t know correct lingo and wasn’t aware of the damage conflating two very different trials held at different times does on his readers’/viewers’ understanding of the legal system and of those who cover it.
You could read columns by Wickham in USA Today blasting the prosecution throughout the trial.
In his 1996 book, “Outrage,” Vincent Bugliosi wrote that many of the TV talking heads “didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.”
Still true 20 years later.