O.J., Lawyers and the Press

January 19, 1995

"Here's a new lawyer joke," wrote Steven Brill in his American Lawyer magazine last month. "Question: Why should lawyers love the press? Answer: Journalism is the only profession that makes lawyers look good." To which he added: "That's certainly been true in the O. J. Simpson case."

That case, which was scheduled formally to begin today, has certainly exposed some of the worst traits of journalists and lawyers, but Mr. Brill's joke is wrong. Last October the public told Gallup Organization pollsters that they rated journalists' "honesty and ethics" higher than they do lawyers'. The relative standings have been constant since at least 1976.

The Simpson trial is going to be the most watched criminal trial ever. Three cable networks -- CNN, Court TV and E! -- are going to offer more or less gavel-to-gavel coverage. ABC, CBS and NBC plan to broadcast the opening statements live. They won't even guarantee live coverage to presidential speeches anymore.

Is this wretched excess or just giving the public what it wants? It seems to be the latter. A new Newsweek poll finds that "82 percent of Americans expect to pay attention to the trial."

Such attention is a good thing, and despite the excesses of some journalists (and so-called journalists) and some of the lawyers involved in this case, Americans can learn a lot about the administration of justice from a trial like this one. The courts are as a rule the least publicized and therefore the least understood branch of government. Part of that is the judiciary's fault; it has erected many unnecessary barriers to journalists covering trials. Part is journalism's fault; the press ignores many important but dull courtroom events.

Not many of that 82 percent are going to watch hour after hour after hour of this trial. Not every one has the time or cable. Even those who do will find that even so fascinating a murder trial as this one has long dry spells. The responsibility of the press therefore is to cover the essential truth -- or truths -- of the trial without distorting or sensationalizing what is going on in that courtroom.

Good journalism tells and shows and explains the reality of the events on the public stage. In that sense journalism does make lawyers look good -- when they are good. And bad when they're bad.

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