Trial TV: Emote control Spectacle: News reports wring every drop of pathos out of the verdict and the aftermath.

October 04, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Moments before the verdict was read, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw told viewers in a hushed voice, "There is nothing we can say that would add to the suspense or drama of this moment."

Then, of course, after only a momentary pause, Brokaw went right on talking, adding yet a few more drops of prattle to an 18-hour tidal wave of television talk that finally washed ashore yesterday with the not-guilty verdict for O.J. Simpson.

The network news cameras were wall-to-wall in Los Angeles, and the big-name anchors were on the air starting at 7 a.m. yesterday. But most of what we saw on our television screens had nothing to do with journalism. To judge the broadcasts by journalistic standards is silly.

What was on display was show business and spectacle.

It was part Oscar night, part Super Bowl, part courtroom thriller, part action-adventure film brought to near-perfect closure, and finally, part legal and racial mud-wrestling. As bizarre as such television events are, in its own way what we saw yesterday was a profound viewing experience.

Most of the day's coverage was framed in the grammar of television's entertainment and sports jargon.

From 7 a.m. (Pacific time) on, for example, CNN and the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) started to feature an overhead shot of the crowd outside the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Building. It was the same shot, with the same treatment, we get outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oscar night.

Standing in the center of the phalanx of fans, CNN's Charles Feldman told viewers that the Garveys (Steve and Cindy) and Bruce Jenner had arrived -- in the same way show-biz correspondents report the arrival of stars at awards show.

But when CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteren followed that with one of the few journalist's questions of the day -- whether Feldman knew if the van carring Simpson had arrived at the courthouse -- Feldman had to admit that he didn't know.

Wasn't she supposed to ask what Cindy was wearing?

Once inside the courtroom, you had the genuine cliffhanger ending that many viewers have been waiting for since June 1994 -- some with their breaths held since Monday night, when Judge Lance Ito said there was a verdict but America would have to wait 18 hours to be told what it was.

And what a perfect development that was -- making the reading of the verdict a television event, with a planned countdown to kickoff, rather than a legitimate news event to which journalists are forced to react instantaneously.

Thank you, thank you

Even after the verdict was read, Judge Ito himself couldn't resist holding the (expected) audience of 100 million viewers for a few extra moments -- to name everyone involved in the trial, from interns to the commissioner of courts, as if it were the closing credits in a television movie.

Then the cameras took us to the winning and losing locker rooms -- the press conferences held by the defense team and members of the Simpson family, followed by Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti's press session with the devastated Christopher Darden and members of the Goldman family.

You have to admit, it was emotional.

But the television device that worked best yesterday was the split screen that showed us an overhead helicopter shot of a white van traveling on the Santa Monica freeway to take Simpson home, and the defense team's press conference.

It would be hard to imagine more perfect emotional and psychic closure.

For millions of viewers, the Simpson phenomenon started on a Friday night in June 1994, when they turned on the television and saw a white Bronco traveling the same freeway.

That's entertainment

Does anybody care whether the legal analysts hired by NBC News seemed smarter or dumber than those hired by CBS? I watched non-stop since "Geraldo Live" on cable channel CNBC at 9 Monday night, and I didn't see one legal expert who wasn't guessing. In fact, the overwhelming consensus among the experts was that Simpson would be found guilty.

Does it matter whether Dan Rather seemed more subdued or Peter Jennings seemed genuinely tired of the whole Simpson business yesterday afternoon? Does it matter locally that WJZ (Channel 13) ran "Jenny Jones" at 9 a.m. instead of staying with extended news coverage from Los Angeles -- as did WBAL (Channel 11) and WMAR (Channel 2)?

No, it doesn't. This was a television event, not journalism. Even on CNN, the cable news network, didn't try to kid us about traditional journalism. Instead of Bernard Shaw or one of the regular anchors, the coverage leading up to the verdict was anchored by Van Susteren and Roger Cossack, hosts of "Burden of Proof," a new legal affairs show launched by the network this week.

The staging for their show featured the hosts facing a bevy of experts who were seated on bleachers opposite them. It looked like a game show on MTV or, perhaps, the NFL pre-game show on Sunday afternoons on Fox.

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