MEMBERS of the press have been taking heat for their coverage of the O. J. Simpson murder case.
Are they guilty of irresponsibility?
It depends. The trashy tabloids have lived up to expectations for their sleazy craft. Serious newspapers have done much better in balancing the extent of their coverage against the rest of the world's news and in attempting to verify the accuracy of what they have published. Television news has gone overboard, affording more live coverage to the Simpson case than to health care, Haiti, or a dozen other issues of profound significance.
As is so often the case in controversial news stories, the performance of the American press has been mixed. The saving grace is that the range of quality is so wide - from the National Enquirer to The New York Times, from ``Geraldo'' to ``MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour'' - that the thoughtful reader or viewer can generally find responsible reporting.
Journalists are not alone the culprits. Much of their information has come from leaks from police and investigators with their own reasons for putting out information, accurate and inaccurate. Then there are the lawyers, protesting pretrial publicity but maneuvering and manipulating at press conferences and on talk shows. Mr. Simpson's lead defense counsel was an eager guest on the Larry King show after the first day of court hearings.
Part of the blame lies with a society that nearly deifies its sports and entertainment celebrities, hungering for gossip. If Simpson had been someone of little prominence, his trial would have rated a few paragraphs in local papers. But because he has won fame and wealth by running fast with a football, the appetite for information about his present situation seems insatiable.
Newspaper editors and TV news directors cannot ignore this public interest. But I have always thought that the best news organizations are run by journalists who believe their function is to provide an intelligent mix of what readers or viewers say they want and what editors believe they need to know.
Perhaps the question should not be whether the press has overdone its coverage of the Simpson murder case, but whether its coverage of Simpson in the past was underdone. Why was Simpson's history of wife-battering left unremarked upon? Why was he allowed to continue as a public-relations icon by major corporations? Why is it only now that the press is focusing on the overall problem of spouse abuse?
Whenever there are sensational stories about major personalities in the news - whether it be President Clinton, Tonya Harding, or O. J. Simpson - there is an avalanche of discussion about whether the press has been fair. I believe that the character and private life of a politician, or a superstar in sports or entertainment who is held up as a role model, is a legitimate subject for responsible journalistic coverage.
The critical question is whether the competitive tilt toward coverage of personalities and their problems is eroding more substantive news coverage. Gene Roberts, a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with me years ago, is one prominent journalist who thinks so. He went on to become executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, piloting that paper to a string of Pulitzer prizes for ``substantive'' stories and series. After a spell as a journalism professor, he is about to begin a three-year assignment as managing editor of The New York Times.
``Never underestimate readers,'' Mr. Roberts says. ``Formula and slickness cannot substitute for substantive news coverage. Today, many newspapers seem to be in a race to see which can be the most shortsighted and superficial ... let us hope there is enough understanding to produce a strong countermovement for substance and continuity.''
Not a bad standard against which to measure the performance of the press today.