F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.05 - September 1995


By Jon Katz

The most faithful among media watchers have always held that media don't lead, they follow. They function best as a mirror. If you watch long enough and closely enough, the truth will unfailingly emerge, however indirectly, and often in the most surprising ways. This is especially true in the trial of O. J. Simpson. For the first time in a generation, all US media are covering the same thing: New York Times reporters side by side with the National Enquirer's and the foreign press; ABC News and America Online bumping up against Inside Edition.

The truth emerging from all this coverage in Los Angeles doesn't have much to do with blood droplets or police bungling. The story that flickers through millions of TV sets globally is much bigger, more troubling even than murder. In the Simpson trial, the truth is this: Some of the country's most important institutions are mired in a mean-spirited standoff between factions whose primary characteristic is that they can't and won't give an inch. Our communal and civic open spaces - courts, workplaces, Congress, Academe - are no longer places where issues are settled, but battlegrounds on which the most pressing conflicts will never be resolved. America is no longer one nation indivisible, if it ever was, but a land peopled by many bitterly divided tribes.

While we still come together under the aegis of public institutions to thrash out our shared values, laws, and understandings, the notion of an America united by common views of attainable equality, justice, and individual freedom is a myth. And the one institution most responsible for spotting and disclosing this big story, as well as providing a forum in which we can come to terms with it, has abdicated its duties. The role of modern journalism as a mechanism for meaningful cultural debate is a great hoax, exposed by Orenthal James Simpson and the spectacle he's provoked in LA.

One after another, our most central institutions have come down the scary road to Simpsonville only to be consumed, overwhelmed, or defeated. If the O. J. saga is one of our most interesting stories ever, it's also one of our most brutal. Day after day, some of our most cherished social verities are being chipped away, witness by witness. The police don't stand for justice, the lawyers don't represent the law, the jury doesn't promise unbiased judgment, and the judge doesn't ensure order.

But no institution is more revealed as utterly bankrupt than daily journalism. Technology lets newspapers, radio, and television bring us the words and pictures more quickly, clearly, and overwhelmingly than ever, but the press has lost the will to tell us what those images mean. It can't get us to talk to or comprehend one another; it allows us only to state our differences ever more stridently. Journalists are not prepared or permitted to acknowledge the way the enormous social, ethnic, and political changes transforming our culture permeate the story unfolding in front of them.

The failed cult of objectivity

To be objective is to be uninfluenced by emotion or prejudice. On secondary school newspapers, in university journalism schools, among young reporters tackling their first beats, objectivity is taught as the professional standard - along with accuracy - to which journalists aspire. Most working journalists, especially older ones, accept it as bedrock: they are detached and impar-tial, setting aside any personal, political, or emotional beliefs.

Many people, inside and outside journalism, believe that objectivity is an unattainable goal. "Nevertheless, we can still distinguish personal attitudes, religious dogmas, and the like from facts and justified beliefs," write Georgetown professors Stephen Klaidman and Tom L. Beauchamp in The Virtuous Journalist. "The essence of some professional commitments is engagement, but in contrast to adherents of the so-called new journalism, we believe ... that journalists are obligated to maintain a professional distance."

This ethic makes viewers' and readers' tasks more difficult. They know that total absence of belief isn't plausible, so editorial objectivity forces them to guess to what degree a journalist's offering flows from personal prejudice. And the public frequently assumes the worst: rather than being permitted to make arguments openly and support them, journalists are suspected of advancing secret agendas, and are rendered less, not more, credible. Right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh might be widely disliked, but they attract vast followings because they are unapologetically outspoken - though hardly "objective."

"To present a story objectively entails writing and organising the material so as not to express or suggest a preference for one set of values over another," write Klaidman and Beauchamp. But anyone who writes (or reads) knows that all stories aren't covered, all questions aren't asked, all answers aren't included. Journalists present facts not laterally but in sequence of importance. This is in itself a subjective process.

The nature of modern politics has altered the meaning of detachment as well. To the gay person seeking a governmental response to AIDS or to the struggling mother whose family is engulfed by drugs and guns, a journalist's attitude of distance about such life-and-death issues constitutes a hostile act. Such audiences will soon find other media. So too the young, who have abandoned newspapers, TV, and radio in staggering numbers for other "non-journalistic" media that they perceive to be much more truthful - media that offer strong points of view, frank exchanges of ideas, graphic visual presentations, and lots of irony and self-deprecation.

Throughout the summer, we were reminded that this extraordinary dissonance between us and our media - so clear in the Simpson trial - was not an exception, but rather the new rule. In July, Time magazine ran a "Cyberporn" cover featuring a discredited undergraduate study as its objective centerpiece. "A new study shows how pervasive and wild it really is," the cover line said of Net pornography. How did one of our primary institutions of information come to pervert reality in this way? In a country where thousands of children are killed or crippled each year by drugs and guns, Time couldn't offer one who'd succumbed by going online.

At almost the same time, the man the FBI calls the Unabomber set out again on his quixotic, doomed, and murderous mission to dismantle technology and the people who create it. His image is haunting, though not the way he intends: what comes to mind is the brain-damaged Joker in the first Batman, who, it seems, has finally paralyzed Gotham, spreading panic, wreaking havoc with airplanes, shutting down parts of the postal service, sending the police scurrying. Two of the country's most powerful and influential media institutions - The New York Times and The Washington Post - debated whether and how to reproduce his lengthy message in its entirety after giving enormous amounts of space to its disjointed content. The lunatics had not only taken control of the asylum but were in charge of reporting the takeover as well.

Still, the idea that reporters must suppress their views and perceptions remains deeply ingrained. "I wouldn't dare write what I think," a reporter who helped cover the Simpson case for the Los Angeles Times recently told a graduate journalism seminar in the San Francisco Bay area. What the reporter thought was that Simpson was guilty and that the jury would never convict him, mostly for racial reasons. "I'll be frank," e-mailed a senior editor at Time, also afraid to be publicly identified. "We'd get massacred if we printed what our reporters think. I know it sounds weird, but it's true. We just couldn't get away with it." It is strange and true - and chilling - when an institution founded on free and fearless speech doesn't dare use either.

(Since we're on the subject, here's what I believe: In light of the evidence presented to date, O. J. Simpson is profoundly disturbed. I believe he killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. I also believe he will not be convicted of murder, primarily because of racial tensions in Los Angeles and because the legal system has no rational, modern system for selecting a jury able to cope with the social pressures and legal complexities of the trial.)

Taught that objectivity is a noble, ethical stance, journalists seem largely unaware that it is the antithesis of the moral media founded before, during, and immediately after the American Revolution. It wasn't until the 19th century - when improved printing technology made it possible to reach thousands of new customers - that greedy publishers conceived of "objectivity" to avoid offending their vast new market. Now, commercial news-broadcasting permits no commentary at all. Shows like Crossfire provide commentary as amusement, allowing only counter-balancing opinions within a narrow ideological range - one spokesperson on the "left," one on the "right," as if there are no other choices. Newspapers relegate opinion to Op-Ed pages, and even there the politics are militantly moderate. In contrast, talk radio - filled with opinions and commentary - is booming.

Decades back, when newspapers were homogeneous - published by white men for white men about white men - objectivity worked in both the marketing and the journalistic sense. Papers became so respectable and inoffensive that they were able to amass large audiences; they monopolised news and advertising from the 1850s to the 1960s.

But as the nation became more diverse, and as new technology provided fierce competition, objectivity paralysed more than professionalised. Cable, VCRs, computers, and modems have created a vast new cultural outlet, not only for new kinds of advertising such as music videos but for the outspoken opinion, vivid writing, visual imagery, and informality the young prefer. Ascending media - Web pages, Oliver Stone films, comedy programmes, online discussions, MTV News - make no pretense of being "objective," comprehensive, or even substantial.

Were America's founding journalists assigned to cover O. J. Simpson - like Thomas Paine, for example - they would have had no truck with objectivity. They believed journalism was about telling the truth as they saw it, as loudly and bluntly as possible.

Proponents of objectivity argue that its loss will mean a chorus of shrill, confusing voices further obscuring the truth. Of course, it's okay to quote shrill and confusing voices all day, as long as the reporter is detached about it.

But journalists are apt to be less strident and more evenhanded than many of the people they quote. Journalism can continue to preach reverence for informed opinion - truth based on research, accuracy, and fairness - while allowing writers and reporters to tell us the truth as they see it.

What would subjective mainstream news media look like?
In the case of the Simpson story, journalists would report not only on the trial, but on the racial climate in Los Angeles, the economics of justice, the overwhelming impact of media, and the glaring inadequacies of the jury system. They would present the trial's daily developments, but would be free - encouraged, in fact - to state opinion as long as they were supported by facts and strong reasoning, and free to change their minds with explanation: "Today, I came to believe O. J. Simpson was innocent, and here's the evidence that made me come to this conclusion."

Courtroom meltdown

But as things stand, life in Simpsonville (current national headquarters for fragmentation and imploding institutions) suggests that it is no longer possible to do business or arrive at a resolution in common settings like courtrooms. Our society has no mechanism to try O. J. Simpson rationally. We can't deal with the debilitating social tensions of the case. And our legal pro-cess virtually guarantees that informed, fair-minded people be barred from juries.

The Simpson trial, as it winds on, continues to cause a loss of faith in our system of justice. A spring American Bar Association poll found 45 per cent of those surveyed said the trial has caused them to lose respect for the justice system. Only 28 per cent of the people questioned the previous year gave the same response.

Like journalism, the legal profession waxes effusive about love of law, constitutional prerogatives, passion for justice. This is hardly the picture that emerges from the bickering, posturing, and manoeuvring in LA. It seems clear that the justice system can be overwhelmed by large infusions of money, influenced by mass concentrations of media, and paralysed by racial divisions.

Take the court's ambivalent attitude toward media. Cultural isolation might have been possible when news consisted of a daily paper, a weekly magazine, or a broadcast. But news channels are now on 24 hours a day, and there are nearly 1,000 radio talk shows. There is no way to isolate a juror or anyone else from the pervasive media and their chorus of messages. Nor is there any reason to. Either potential jurors are forced to pretend they live in cocoons, or they really do live in cocoons that poorly prepare them for their roles of deciding enormously complex issues.

But the more you know about the law in general or about a case in particular, says author Wendy Kaminer, the less likely you are to wind up on a jury. Litigators, she points out, don't seek objective, unbiased jurors: they want biased ones - people they believe favour their cases. And concern about pretrial publicity, Kaminer says, favors uninformed over informed jurors.

As the drama of the Simpson trial already demonstrates, a jury no longer does what it was meant to do (function as the true conscience of the community) but represents those parts of the community, those tribes, to which individual jurors belong. Ex-juror Jeanette Harris made this contradiction clear, shocking many whites, when she told reporters that she believed none of the evidence presented against Simpson to be true and pointed out that jurors could hardly be expected to transcend racial issues, since whites and blacks had to go back to their communities after the trial. If she had made those views clear at the outset, she probably never would have gotten on the jury.

Whether they realise it or not, reporters covering the trial seem to have abandoned even the pretense that jurors can transcend racial issues. Jurors are identified by race, and it is virtually assumed that just as the loss of an African-American juror is a setback for the defense, the dismissal of a white or Hispanic juror is a defeat for the prosecution. If the reporters are right, then the jury system is unworkable in racially charged cases. If they're wrong, then they are advancing the worst kind of stereotypes.

In With Justice for Some: Victims' Rights in Criminal Trials, Columbia University Law School professor George Fletcher makes a number of specific, logical recommendations for reforming the courts. In the era of CNN and Court TV, Fletcher writes that high-profile cases cannot escape the notice of even the most remote citizens. Prospective jurors should be screened not to locate the ignorant or ill-informed, but to find those "capable of maintaining an open mind until they hear the evidence." Fletcher and other legal scholars point out that the historical motive in jury selection wasn't picking detached citizens, but peers of the accused who were part of his or her community and could act on its behalf. People locked in motels for months while being spied on by deputies seem far from that ideal.

In modern America, we might consider empanelling jurors willing to acknowledge and discuss racial perceptions and biases, instead of forcing them to pretend they have none. Fletcher calls for the establishment of an "interactive jury," an idea that looks pretty good in the Simpson case. "As they now function," he writes, "jury trials display little capacity for self-correction and avoidance of irrational tangents." Rather than sequestering jurors, he argues, judges should encourage outside contact, inviting them to ask questions of the judge so they understand the law.

Most judges, however, seem to react the same way baby-boomer parents do: rather than struggle with how best to use modern media and attendant technology, they find it easier to ban them.

(At least) two nations

The most jarring cultural division demonstrated by the Simpson story is racial. Sometime this spring, according to numerous polls and surveys, it became clear to most white Americans - roughly 70 per cent - that O. J. Simpson was probably guilty, that the DNA and other evidence was substantial, that the idea of a massive police conspiracy to frame him was ludicrous, and at best a desperate play by high-powered lawyers. Almost at the same time, it became equally clear to most African Americans - also about three-quarters - that Simpson was innocent, and that a police conspiracy was not only possible but likely.

It also became clear to both groups and everyone else that the Simpson jury was probably not going to convict him and would stalemate primarily as a result of racial differences. Journalists passed along the poll results, but seemed unable to react to the fact that these findings had become the big story, not an interesting sideline. For those of us watching from a distance, this media dissonance became increasingly disturbing. We sensed we were not seeing and hearing the truth. However unintentionally, journalism's daily offerings seemed a great lie.

In racial terms, as political scientist Andrew Hacker declares in the title of his landmark work, America is Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. That could as easily be the theme of the trial. Though many white Americans want to view racism as an ugly part of the past, African Americans see it as part of their daily reality. "A huge racial chasm remains, and there are few signs that the coming century will see it closed," writes Hacker.

If whites are puzzled by black anger, they needn't be. There's lots of terrific reporting about it outside the mainstream media, in works like Hacker's or in Christopher Jencks's Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass.

The bleak and powerful writing of these scholars hardly makes the black-white schism surrounding the Simpson trial easier to take, but it moves the discussion past knee-jerk responses that stifle real comprehension or progress. It becomes much clearer why white and black jurors can look at the same people saying the same things and reach totally different conclusions.

This is perhaps the heart not only of the Simpson story but of the media's failure to cover this trial incisively: journalists lack the ability to be blunt enough, truthful enough, or analytical enough to help us understand not just what we're seeing but why. Entrenched social problems, mobility, technology, immigration, and the breakup of empires and superpowers are knocking us off our civic pins. Historians, anthropologists, and social scientists have recorded the fragmentation of America for years. In a stream of compelling literature, they've pointed out that politicians are locked in eternally warring camps, stalemating the political process with their refusal to compromise or reach beyond narrow constituencies, and that blacks and whites and Asians and Hispanics are hopelessly divided on a widening range of social and civic issues. Authors have described a culture of victimisation, complaint, and rage permeating almost every part of American life. But because our mass media shy away from such indictments, we don't have to acknowledge their sobering truth - or do anything about them.

Before the age of print, writes Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, the Roman Empire easily won every war against heresy because it always had better lines of internal communication than its challengers. But by the early 1500s, Martin Luther had published 430 editions of his biblical translations, creating for the first time a truly mass readership. New media are creating a similar diversity. Television, telephones, modems, and fax technology not only leapfrog cities and countries, but are within almost everyone's reach. The number of television images or Internet exchanges in the course of a single day is incalculable.

Through the early 1960s, the common representation of America was an Eisenhowerish one: women stayed at home while prosperous men conducted the country's business. Minorities were largely invisible. Justice and opportunity prevailed. Mainstream journalism had no idea how many unhappy women, gays, blacks, and Hispanics there were because nobody much cared. Now that we claim to care, we have to listen to all the vitriol.

Fragmented identities

If cultural anthropologists could write, a lot of journalists would have to find other work. And if journalists were given the time, education, and training anthropologists receive, we might better grasp some of the complicated problems we face. There are more reporters assembled at the O. J. Simpson trial, for longer periods, generating more words and videotape, than have gathered around any domestic story ever. Mostly, they present the trial as a sort of ethnocentric Super Bowl, offering a daily tip sheet and score card: when O. J. struggled to don the bloodied Isotoners, it was "good" for the defense, but the DNA evidence proved a "victory" for the prosecution. One legal strategy is checkmated by another: defense against prosecution, journalists against jurists, experts against experts, jurors against jurors, whites against blacks. The coverage provides staggering amounts of banal play-by-play. But it ignores the big story, a story anthropologists and social historians have been documenting for years.

There are, writes anthropologist Arjun Appadurai in Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present, some "brute facts" we must face. Central among them, he says, "is the changing social, territorial, and cultural reproduction of group identity. As groups migrate, regroup in new locations, reconstruct their histories, and reconfigure their ethnic 'projects' or goals ... the landscapes of group identity all over the world are changing."

Appadurai calls these new communities "ethnoscapes" and notes they are sprouting all over the US and much of the world. Mobility, diversity, and media exposure alter groups' expectations, generate instability, cement differences, exacerbate conflict. Instead of assimilating, tribes retain their own values and reject many of those imposed by the cultures they find themselves in.

The polarisation of American life is talked about all the time in living rooms and backyards and on talk radio; it's on display on the big boards like AOL and Prodigy and in countless newsgroups. Though we pretend that everybody is alike and equal and approaches their common civic duty with the same basic values, the images flickering across millions of TVs contradict this pretense. America is increasingly a collection of tribal enclaves, each responsive to its own interests but unable or unwilling to step beyond itself on behalf of a common good. Journalists are one tribe in LA, whites another, African Americans another, along with the police, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and jurors.

All over the planet, definitions of what nations are and mean are changing - a big story in anthropology, if not on our evening news or front pages. "We live in a ... world of crisscrossed economies, intersecting systems of meaning, and fragmented identities," writes Roger Rouse in Diaspora, a journal of trans-national studies. We have moved into a new kind of social space.

You can see this space in every local paper, commercial newscast, and CNN hourly report, but it is not a pretty picture. From the Capitol to the town hall, our media depict a raucous quagmire. We seem stuck in a public tar pit over every issue that counts: the environment, education, budgets, poverty, gender, culture, and race. Within the fragmented media, one element accuses another of sensationalism and oversimplification. This is a new politics of entrenchment, where sides dig in and fight for every bloody inch of ground, where the function of media is to transmit pictures and quotes of people shouting at one another.

Our journalists should be shaping and commenting upon the debate, not simply exacerbating it. This is where new media's potential should be realised, where a new form of public space can develop in which we might find rational solutions to fundamental problems. But so far, new media have also failed.

Is digital news any better? Not much

Although big online systems like Prodigy are as corporate and tepid as other mainstream media, they have too many live chat rooms and public topics to be as safe and noncontroversial as they'd undoubtedly like to be. Smaller BBSes, computer conferencing systems, and Web sites have no history of objectivity; public policy and politics are fiercely debated, and almost nothing is off-limits.

And they are paying attention to the trial. Time Warner's Pathfinder on the Web has a Simpson conference, as do The Well's media and current events conferences, and other Web sites and newsgroups. One site is a virtual directory to all things Simpson on the Net: http://www.yahoo.com/Law/Cases/OJ_Simpson_Case. The site guides trial watchers to CyberSight's O. J. poll, humour topics, Simpson products (like court transcripts), and to news, in the form of alt.fan.oj-simpson, a well-organised, useful, and sometimes quite provocative discussion and information area covering everything from DNA to the collection of blood evidence.

Although individual discussion is much freer online than off, online news has yet to become influential or able to grasp and exploit its own potential. It hasn't defined its own ethic or its function in covering stories like O. J. Simpson's.

The biggest journalistic breakthrough made by online news has been reconnecting individuals to stories like this, giving them a chance to bypass journalists and ask questions, express themselves, share concerns. But with so many voices speaking at once, it's difficult for most people to find what they most want or need to hear. This is fertile ground for good, subjective journalism if there ever was one.

But instead of presenting themselves as distinct editorial entities willing to use new media in new ways, the big boards are content to rent space to mainstream, old-line media. And these traditional news media come online with their usual timidity, happy to let users mouth off in forums and via e-mail, but remaining as cautious online as they are on their editorial pages.

Yet the possibilities are enormous. America Online could easily set up black-white forums on which individuals could speak frankly about race and begin a dialogue in a medium that permits users to encounter people they would otherwise never meet. Black people could message about their perceptions of racism and justice, white males could talk about their fear of displacement, scholars like Jencks or Hacker could come online to answer questions and share their research findings. People of different races, sexes, and sexual orientations could begin communicating with one another in radically different ways, instead of passively viewing or reading one culture's anger and laments about the other, or viewing media as a neutral transmitter of outrage and complaint.

Digital media could make it possible for people to interact - maybe even changing each other's minds in the process - something traditional media inhibit through their addiction to objectivity, spokespeople, and sensationalism. Every online user knows that this kind of communication often breaks down barriers, forcing sender and receiver to deal with each other as individuals rather than as group members.

There is already a precedent for opposing political forces to communicate directly via this technology. During the debate over gays in the military, gay soldiers spoke directly to wary veterans on CompuServe. There are more than a dozen newsgroups for African-American professionals on the Net, several for police officers who have shot people or been shot, one for black cops struggling to reconcile racial history with police work. Online news suggests a forum in which it would be easier for fragmented political or racial groups to begin what will be a tortuous process: teaching the members of all those tribes how to communicate and providing them with a simple means of doing so. Unfortunately, as the biggest story of our times unfolds across millions of screens, the new media have not yet risen to the task of either proclaiming the awful truth or fostering the dialogue we so desperately need to deal with it.

Great stories

For better or worse, great stories have always transformed the media that cover them and the institutions they cover. Walter Cronkite's coverage of the Kennedy assassination and the moon landing were broadcast journalism's twin high-water marks, legitimising TV news as the country's most pervasive news medium. Watergate brought the press into its ongoing age of antagonism and self-righteousness, as reporters entered the personal and sexual lives of public figures. The death of Elvis sparked a booming new tabloid news culture that's become a permanent part of our information structure. The Northridge, California, earthquake, reported first on Prodigy via wireless modem, made online communications a news medium in the traditional sense of the term. Four hours after the bombing in Oklahoma City, Internet Oklahoma (ionet) had created a World Wide Web site offering news, lists of survivors, and hospital telephone numbers. Inevitably, as the number of online users grow, online news will converge with a massive story, and digital news will become part of the media mainstream.

But if great stories transform media, they also systematically shake our belief in institutions. Watergate and Vietnam eroded the credibility of the military and the presidency. The dramas of Anita Hill and Rodney King discredited Congress and the police. The Simpson trial has done the same for criminal justice and mass media. Story by story, our civic hearts seem broken, our faith shattered. For a generation, media mythologised our most important institutions - the FBI, the government, the judicial system. Then we learned shocking, revelatory new truths about the way our civil service machinery works, and we were totally unprepared for the idea that it doesn't always work. No wonder we puzzle over why we are so angry and disconnected. We are given so little truth most of the time, reality seems unbearable when we are finally confronted with it.

If one tenet of our age is that information wants to be free, its companion is that media want to tell the truth. Neither information nor media get what they want much of the time; this is one of the great ironies of the information revolution and the sad legacy of the O. J. Simpson trial.

Jon Katz is Wired's media critic. He can be e-mailed at jdkatz@aol.com.