September 28, 2008
Latest O.J. Trial Brings Distorted News Ethics
By Tim Rutten Los Angeles Times
If you practice journalism long enough, you begin to develop a mental list of characters you hope never again to type in a particular sequence.Take, for example, the letters that spell "O.J. Simpson."
Like most sensible people, you probably have been doing something useful with your time recently -- figuring out, say, what "field dressing a moose" actually entails, watching your 401(k) implode or setting up a rescue program for rabid skunks. You haven't, in other words, been following the latest legal melodrama in which the onetime football star turned superstar defendant has managed to embroil himself.
Just to bring the sane up to speed: Simpson is being tried on armed robbery and other charges in Las Vegas. Authorities there allege that the former NFL running back and a number of gun- wielding confederates entered a hotel room and held up two dealers of sports collectibles, making off with an estimated $100,000 worth of memorabilia, some of it from Simpson's career, some of it related to other professional athletes. The former Heisman Trophy winner denies guns were used and says he simply was reclaiming items -- some of them family photos -- that had been stolen from his home. If convicted, Simpson could spend the rest of his life in prison, which surely would make a lot of people happy and probably wouldn't bother that many others.
So what makes all this more than a curiosity -- or, perhaps, a minor-key argument that justice deferred isn't always or necessarily justice denied?
Well, if you take a step back for a second, you might recall that Simpson's trial for the murder of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman -- a young waiter out to do a customer a good turn -- was more than just another "trial of the century." The Simpson case was a journalistic battering ram that breached the wall between the celebrity-obsessed tabloids and serious mainstream news organizations, leaving gaps in values and practices that never have been adequately repaired.
Suffice to say, everybody decided to jump through the breach and into the swamp, and, to an extent too easily accepted, there we all have remained. Thus the various frenzies over Anna Nicole Smith and Michael Jackson and Paris Hilton or this month's missing blonde.
Tabloid subjects are bad enough; tabloid methods are something else entirely. What makes the tawdry little trial under way in Las Vegas such a melancholy affair is the revelation that a key figure in the sordid sequence of events has been paid to tell his story, and not only by the tabloid Web site TMZ but also by the semi- respectable syndicated television show "Entertainment Tonight" and the previously respectable ABC News.
Monday, a witness named Thomas Riccio testified that TMZ paid him $150,000 and "Entertainment Tonight" and ABC shelled out $25,000 and $15,000, respectively, to obtain interviews, photographs and audio recordings he made of the alleged robberies. (We'll leave it to the jury to sort out what to make of the fact that Riccio arranged the meeting between Simpson and the memorabilia dealers, secretly recorded what happened and then sold the recordings to TMZ before making them available to police.)
There's nothing to be said about TMZ other than that the people who run it are the informational equivalent of pimps and panderers. But what to make of "Entertainment Tonight," which has a reasonable reputation, and of ABC News? Riccio testified Monday that producers from both organizations told him that although they couldn't ethically pay for interviews, they could pay for his photographs and audiotape. Given that these materials are evidence of an alleged crime, that's pushing the ethical envelope, but you've got to love what came next.
According to Jeffrey Schneider, a spokesman for ABC News, Riccio was paid so the network could broadcast his audiotape on "Good Morning America." When parts of it turned out to be inaudible, Riccio had to be interviewed and that conversation was broadcast on the show. Right.
The argument against paying for the news is simple enough: When you pay sources for news, they have an economic stake in telling you what you want to hear and, anymore, telling you the most sensational thing you want to hear. The implications aren't hard to foresee -- unless, of course, you're trying to carve out a future alongside the tabloids in the gutter, while pretending to be somewhere else.
Tim Rutten is a Times columnist. E-mail him at [email protected]
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