Tuesday night, when it looked as though the verdict in the O.J. Simpson civil trial would collide with the president's State of the Union address, the White House sent a challenge to the networks: Prove what you think news is. The major networks stayed with President Clinton's speech, quickly switching over to the Santa Monica courthouse when the president was through talking.
It wasn't a definitive answer to the question of what news is, just as the verdict in this latest trial doesn't, for many people, answer the question of whether justice has been served. Sixteen months after a mostly black jury acquitted Mr. Simpson in the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the former football star was found liable by a mostly white jury and ordered to pay $8.5 million in compensatory damages.
With good reason, many people say they are tired of the whole affair - tired of talking about it, tired of hearing about it. For others, the two trials and two verdicts continue to fascinate - also with good reason. After all, they've provided a window on the American legal system. The two differed remarkably. Superior Court Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki, for example, banned cameras from the courtroom and placed lawyers and others involved in the civil case under a gag order. His intent was to keep a circus-like atmosphere out of the courtroom and prove that the system can work. To the extent possible, he succeeded.
He also ruled that the defense could not make race an issue in the civil trial as it had in the criminal trial, saying - accurately - that it was inflammatory and speculative. But reaction to the "liable" verdict was divided along racial lines, with some conspicuous exceptions. Not only blacks were concerned about what seemed double jeopardy - though legally that applies only to prosecutions brought by the state, not private plaintiffs.
It's wrong to assume the juries' conclusions were based simply on race when the cases before them differed so. At the same time, the trials gave us all an opportunity for a national discussion of basic issues - including domestic abuse, jury composition, and the persistent racial divide. Though it's time, as many have said, to leave the Simpson affair behind us and get on with our lives, it's time, too, to get on with that discussion.