Tag Archives: Bill Whitaker

Remote Trial Coverage

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.
Defendant O.J. Simpson arrives under the gaze of t
The caption reads: “Defendant O.J. Simpson arrives under the gaze of the media at the Santa Monica Courthouse where the first day of opening arguments. 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.
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Musical Courtroom Seats

The press gets new seats.

Most are happy, some are mad.

It’s always no win.

5/5/95

Simpson trial judge Lance Ito knew there was great demand for seats in his courtroom and signed off on the assigned seating for the media. He concurred that they were the eyes and ears of the public and thought they should have some certainty in getting a seat. The assigned seats came with a caveat, however. They had to be occupied. In the early days of the trial, no problem. But as time went on, some reporters and producers would watch the TV feed in the media center instead of sitting in the courtroom.

After weeks of seeing empty media seats, and knowing that some members of the media who were always there didn’t have the best seat, he asked me to revise the seating plan and give members of the media who had the better attendance to better seats. I could do that because, just like a school teacher taking daily attendance, I had a written record of who was there — not just every day, but at the beginning of each session.

So, here is my journal entry for the day the new seating assignments went into effect:

“The revised seating plan went into effect today and I feel like I’ve been through a meat grinder!

All but maybe three people were absolutely up in arms. They just ripped into me.  It started out, I went over to the courthouse and told a couple of the deputies at the (security) screen, ‘Hey you guys want to come up and be my bodyguards? I need a flack jacket,’ and boy I was not underestimating!”

One wire service reporter was in tears, saying it wasn’t fair because she had to duck out to meet frequent deadlines. But I took attendance only at the beginning of each session, not during it. She said she was late and didn’t get in on time because of balky elevators. Everyone ran that risk, I said. Plus, I didn’t ding anyone the day the elevators broke down or when there were bomb scares, or when they were out sick, including her.

“Everybody had a gripe, a complaint, a reason why they shouldn’t have been held accountable or they wanted to contest me, saying, ‘We were there, we were there, we were there!’ I have it written down every single day that the seat wasn’t filled with somebody from their organization.  So, I can’t help it if they say, ‘We have producers here from New York and you may not know who they are.’ But I always asked. If I didn’t know who the people were I asked, if I had a question and I thought they might be with the network then I put a question mark.  I did not count it as a vacancy.  So I really erred on the most liberal side giving everybody the biggest benefit of the doubt.

“It is strictly on attendance, strictly on attendance, strictly on attendance. They couldn’t seem to understand.  They were saying that I was unfair, and so forth and then they started saying that I have this unannounced policy and that I hadn’t told anybody that the seats are going to be reassigned and that I was giving secret demerits.

“At one point, David Goldstein with KCAL had said, ‘Hey, we are an affiliate of CNN so we can share seats because it says affiliates can share,’ and I said, ‘That’s not right because CNN has a seat with KCOP, so when we do the revised seating I guess we’ll put CNN with KCAL and KTLA with KCOP.’  Oh no, he says, ‘all of us, all three stations are affiliates of CNN.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe I will just give one seat to all of you because the other, the networks have to share with all of their affiliates.’ He said, ‘Oh, but they are owned by the networks, CNN doesn’t own us, we are all independent, we just have an affiliation agreement with CNN.’ That’s what I have to put up with.

 

“Then Bill Whitaker called, he is a correspondent with CBS. I was on the phone with him for a 1/2 hour and he just went on and on saying they were in their seat and this person was on this day and this person was on that day and I said, ‘I can tell you I sat right in the courtroom and if there was not a human body in that seat it was vacant or if a George Reedy (a media wannabe), or a Current Affair or somebody else who is on the first-come-first-served list is in a seat, it was vacant.’  He started carrying on about secret policies.

“So before I got back to the office I stopped by to see Judge Ito and I said, ‘If I remember correctly you even made a remark from the bench one day about all these empty seats and that the seats were going to be reassigned so that the people who were there faithfully would get better seats,’ and he said, ‘Yes, I did.’

“So, there it is on the record. Then, I get back to my office and come to find out he had issued a media advisory, I’d forgotten all about it.  We issued a media advisory on April 14th spelling out exactly what was going to be happening and so I faxed that to Bill Whitaker.”