The O.J. Simpson Verdict, Race and the Media

O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder 10 years ago Monday. The verdict exposed deep rifts between whites and blacks in the United States, including those who work in the country's newsrooms.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Ten years ago today, tens of millions of Americans riveted to their televisions and radios heard this...

(Soundbite of October 3, 1995, recording)

Unidentified Woman: (Reading) `We the jury in the involved entitled action find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder in violation of Penal Code section 187(a) of the...'

CHADWICK: Much of the reaction to O.J. Simpson's acquittal in his criminal trial was polarized along racial lines, in the streets and in the newsrooms, as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

ABC correspondent Judy Muller was in the network's Los Angeles bureau watching TV monitors as she waited to write a piece on the Simpson verdict that would run on "Nightline." When the verdict was read, Muller, who is white, remembers her jaw dropped.

Ms. JUDY MULLER (ABC News): I think the reaction in the newsroom was the same as newsrooms and cafes and diners all across the country. I think the reaction split down racial lines.

BATES: Nowhere was that more clear than in Los Angeles, where the trial took place. White and black Angelenos often had opposing points of view, like these from Rocco Spinelli(ph) and Iona Dix(ph).

Mr. ROCCO SPINELLI (Los Angeles Resident): Cases like this in other states would never--they would never get off. Just in LA only because of black pressure. It's the black pressure that lets these people go.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

Unidentified Man: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

Ms. IONA DIX (Los Angeles Resident): O.J. is not kin to me, but justice is served today.

BATES: Sylvester Monroe, an African-American journalist, is the Sunday national editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Ten years ago, he was an LA-based correspondent for Time magazine covering the racial divide surrounding the Simpson trial. He says his workplace, like Muller's, was divided by race. But Monroe says he had a hint some of his white co-workers viewed the trial differently when Time's first O.J. cover was published. To the outrage of many blacks, including Time's own black employees, the ex-athlete's photo was digitally manipulated.

Mr. SYLVESTER MONROE (Sunday National Editor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution): The photo editor said, `We're doing this for dramatic effect.' African-Americans were appalled at Time and said that, `If anyone had asked--if any of the editors had asked us, we would have told you that that was a terrible thing to do,' because, in fact, what they did was they took O.J. Simpson's mug shot from when he was arrested and darkened it, which made him look more sinister and implied, in some ways, that he was guilty.

BATES: Monroe's editors may disagree, but he believes this may have unconsciously reflected how they felt.

In 1995, Bill Boyarsky, who is white, was writing a column called The Spin for the Los Angeles Times. As part of the paper's Team O.J.(ph), his job was to analyze how the prosecution and the defense tried to sway public opinion through the media. He also looked at race and its effect on the trial and the outside world. Boyarsky, now retired, says that the tiny, crowded courthouse press room was a tense social laboratory.

Mr. BILL BOYARSKY (Former Columnist, Los Angeles Times): There were some reporters who engaged in this steady commentary. The trial was televised live and we had two sets blaring, you know, commenting, commenting. There, I felt that a lot of the comments were very pro-prosecution from the white reporters. And I know that from the black reporters--who I talked to as part of my job of covering the media--were resentful of that, and they felt that the white reporters' comments were out of line and they showed a certain amount of prejudice.

BATES: Again, Sylvester Monroe.

Mr. MONROE: Reporters, editors, journalists in general are human beings. And race is such a visceral kind of issue that it touches you in places that sometimes override your professionalism.

BATES: Monroe says race remains a volatile issue in most workplaces, and the press room during the Simpson trial was no exception.

Tom Elias is a white journalist who covered the trial for the Scripps Howard chain. He co-authored a book with a black colleague about racial division in the trial. He vividly remembers a huge blowup he had with the late Andrea Ford, an African-American who was the LA Times' lead courtroom reporter. They fell out, he recalls, over Ford's insistence that the word `nigger'--uttered on tape by prosecution witness Detective Mark Fuhrman--would be incendiary to a black jury. Elias recalls things exploded when he said aloud that there are as many words as bad as the so-called N-word, and Ford angrily disagreed.

Mr. TOM ELIAS (Journalist): `It's the worst thing in the world, you know, and you guys just don't know. You've never been slaves,' and so on. Of course, she's never been a slave, either. My parents left Germany, you know, to avoid the Holocaust. What does she know of that? She doesn't know anything about that because I'd never met before we started covering this trial. And, believe me, I didn't want anything to do with her after that exchange.

BATES: In the years since Simpson, many reporters have conceded it's almost inevitable that journalists covering racially sensitive trials will view them through the filter of their own experiences. Just as the devastation from Hurricane Katrina recently exposed poverty and inequality in ways Americans couldn't ignore, Judy Muller says the Simpson verdict and the racially polarized reaction to it did the same thing for mostly white news personnel.

Ms. MULLER: And it was really instructive. We had to find out: `What does justice look like when you grow up seeing the police as the enemy and seeing your neighborhood targeted by police as a war zone? And how does that affect the way you see the whole justice system?'

BATES: It's an issue many newsrooms across the country continue to struggle with a decade after O.J. Simpson became a free man. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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