SEVENTEEN million Americans watched an hour-long ABC News special on O.J. Simpson four days after his infamous slow-speed car chase. The program was the week's top-rated show and generated an estimated $7 million in advertising revenue for the network.
A week after the chase, Time and Newsweek magazines reported near-record sales of issues with Mr. Simpson on the cover. Within two weeks of the chase, more than 1 million copies of three different $4.95 quickie-books on the Simpson case were shipped to bookstores.
For the American media, the stakes - and potential profits - have rarely been higher. But critics warn that the potential to make such large profits is lowering the quality of much American journalism and blurring the line between entertainment and news.
Intense competition, corporate takeovers, and the success of profitable television newsmagazines have led network news divisions to lower their standards, critics warn, and many newspapers and publishers are slowly following suit.
``Journalism has a public-service role, and a public responsibility, to not lose its mind to attract advertising and to use restraint and caution [instead],'' says James Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune and a critic of corporate takeovers of newspapers.
``Now there is a devotion, and responsibility, to making as much money as you can,'' Mr. Squires says. ``The news reflects the subject matter of prime-time entertainment - sex, violence, the aberrant, and the absurd.''
Boston University Mass Communications Professor Toby Berkovitz says that newspapers are producing just as much ``entertainment'' as television news.
``What do you do about the Living section of the Boston Globe or the Styles section of the New York Times?'' Professor Berkovitz asks. ``Do you say this is news or entertainment?''
Both critics say that print and broadcast media coverage of the Simpson case and other recent stories reflects an intense pressure for profits and the influence of syndicated TV newsmagazines.
The first syndicated TV news magazine, Fox Television's ``A Current Affair,'' aired in 1987. The weekday half-hour program generally attracts 5 million viewers each night and earns an estimated $700,000 in advertising revenues per episode.
The show's success and profitability soon led other entertainment companies to launch three similar shows - ``Hard Copy,'' ``Inside Edition,'' and, most recently, ``American Journal.''
A steadily rising number of network news magazines now dominate the prime-time schedule, because they can be even more profitable, Berkovitz says. A one-hour network news magazine costs roughly $500,000 to produce, but with good ratings it can earn $2 million in advertising revenue.
Berkovitz says intense competition among network news magazines and the syndicated TV newsmagazines' willingness to air ``tabloid-style'' stories has led the networks and local television stations to lower their standards.
``It's indisputable that these [syndicated] magazines have forced [the networks] to be more sensational,'' he says. ``It changes what stories they cover.''
Gary Morgenstein, a spokesman for ABC News's ``Prime Time Live,'' says ABC has not lowered its standards on the Simpson case and still regularly conducts major investigations. ``We're covering the news and O.J. Simpson is a major story.'' He adds: ``We have been trying to frame [the case] in the larger issues.''
THE syndicated news programs have shown their growing influence on reporting during the Simpson coverage. ``A Current Affair'' estimates that its ratings increased by nearly 1 million viewers - 16 percent - during the first two weeks of the case.
The syndicated shows also have repeatedly scooped, and been quoted by, other news sources. But observers criticize the programs and supermarket tabloids for reportedly paying for interviews. Critics say the practice creates an incentive to make up sensational stories and reduces a witness's credibility.
Two witnesses at Simpson's pretrial hearing admitted being paid $12,500 by the National Enquirer for an account of Simpson's purchasing a knife from their store. ``Hard Copy'' reportedly paid a neighbor who was a grand jury witness $5,000 for an interview.
A spokesman for ``Hard Copy'' did not return phone calls. A spokeswoman for ``A Current Affair'' says the program ``never reveals how we get stories.''
``If I were to make one rule, it would be the disclosure of payments,'' says John Seigenthaler, former editor of the Nashville Tennessean and chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. ``It substantially changes what a person would say.''
Mr. Seigenthaler says the news media should identify news organizations that pay for interviews or report inaccurate stories.
``Never in my life as a journalist has there been such an opportunity for newspapers and television to dissect and criticize the quality of the news,'' he says. ``Quarterly journalism reviews won't do it. What's missing is a penetrating [daily] look at news content.''
Berkovitz says news organizations need to find a middle ground in their coverage. ``You can bemoan this horrible stuff all you want, but the public is clearly interested in it,'' he says. ``Do you give the public what it wants or what it needs? You have to find a balance between the two.''
All three critics emphasized that, in the end, readers, listeners, and viewers are the most powerful force in journalism. ``If, in fact, the public wanted more responsible reporting,'' Squires says, ``they wouldn't be sitting in front of their TVs with their mouths watering for the next detail about the [Simpson and Goldman] murders.''