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Report Card on O.J. Press Coverage

With Americans divided over Simpson's acquittal, media critics are calling for better coverage of the nation's racial differences

MORE than almost any case in recent history, the O.J. Simpson trial shed a stark light on the unsettling racial divide between whites and African-Americans in the United States.

From detective Mark Fuhrman's bigoted ramblings to defense attorney Johnnie Cochran's controversial condemnation of the racism that can seep into the criminal-justice system, the volatile subject repeatedly flared, confusing and enraging Americans on both sides.

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Not surprisingly, the media have been both lauded and reproached for their handling of the issue. Critics charge the natural tendency of the press to simplify and heighten controversy exacerbated racial differences and did little to enhance understanding.

Advocates of the press say it dealt responsibly with an intractable issue that has troubled the nation's conscience, particularly since the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954. They argue the media should not function as social reformers but as mirrors of social reality.

''Journalists have been responsible, for the most part, in passing along responsible opinions and not playing on the fringes of the arguments,'' says Peter Herford, professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York.

But critics contend the mainstream media suffered from the same denial that makes the country as a whole uncomfortable with discussions about race. They argue that the press could have delved more deeply into the causes of the widely divergent opinions and facilitated a national conversation.

Media as interlocutor

''With the coverage of the polls, they kept telling us how divided we were, but they don't tell us how they got there,'' says Jon Katz, media critic for Wired magazine.

From June 17, 1994, when Mr. Simpson was arrested for the brutal murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, polls consistently showed the vast majority of whites believed Simpson was guilty, while almost as many blacks thought the former football hero was innocent.

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''What people are doing is putting their judgment of the fairness of the whole justice system into the equation, and I think the news media have to cover that,'' says Gary Orfield, professor of education at Harvard University and a leading researcher on desegregation.

Before the verdict, which catapulted the race issue onto the front pages, most of the major papers and the networks did occasional stories throughout the year-long process that looked at the causes of the divergent opinions.

A primary focus was the different experiences white and black Americans have with the criminal justice system.

In the words of The New York Times's Don Terry, ''For [many black people] the police do not serve and protect their neighborhoods, they scare and scar.''

Too few stories on race

But critics charge such stories were too few and far between. As a result, many Americans were taken aback by the verdict.

''White America is flabbergasted and black America finds the verdict perfectly comprehensible,'' says Mr. Katz.

Katz argues that reporters knew full well that racial prejudice and the corruption it bred in the Los Angeles Police Department were at the heart of the successful Simpson defense, but were hesitant to report the extent to which it was relying on it until Johnnie Cochran's closing arguments.

''They reported it as it was developing in the trial,'' says Nolan Bowie of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy. ''But there's still a lot of background that needs to be explained and explored to put the O.J. case into context.''

Mr. Bowie says the media have failed to use their agenda-setting function to stimulate more responsible discussion about race.

He argues they should take a leadership role writing more editorials, hiring more African-Americans, and ensuring discussion of racial issues raised by the trial don't disappear from front pages.

But others argue the media are already fulfilling its responsibility and that it has no business trying to change society.

''Journalism doesn't change things like racism and sexism, it doesn't work that way'' says Mr. Herford. ''Racism gets solved by individual citizens, by churches, and civic organization.''

Other media analysts say the attention given to race in the case has obscured another troubling issue about class divisions.

''If anything, the press could have done a better job on how this was a case about power and money and celebrity,'' says Jonathan Alter, a columnist for Newsweek, who often writes on the media. ''If [O.J. Simpson] was a black man who wasn't rich and famous, or a white man who wasn't rich and famous he wouldn't have been acquitted.''

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