Press Rights Clash With Right to Fair Trial Amid Media Frenzy

DAVID BLOOM, a correspondent for NBC Nightly News, sits in a tiny press room three flights above the most famous court trial in America.

``The only thing worse than excluding the press from the courtroom has been making us listen,'' he says of the monotonous jury selection in the O.J. Simpson trial.

Viewers may feel the same way about some of the press dispatches from the courthouse. From the start, the trial has raised searching questions about society's fascination with the case - and the amount of news media coverage that is appropriate.

The gaggle of camera crews and scribes scurrying about the state courthouse here highlights a fundamental clash - perhaps more than any case in American history - between the rights of a free press and the right of an accused to a fair trial.

Today this tension between the US Constitution's First and Sixth Amendments reaches a critical juncture. Judge Lance Ito is scheduled to rule on whether to allow cameras to televise the trial itself. Judge Ito has been angered by inaccurate reporting and sensationalized press accounts of the murders.

But many journalists and legal experts contend that overly strict constraints on media coverage impinge on the public's ``right to know.'' In arguments today, lawyers for the media are expected to remind Ito that such accounts were generated outside the courtroom, not because of cameras within it.

``More people than ever before have been sensitized to the tension between the rights of journalists and the rights of defendants,'' says Myrna Raeder of the American Bar Association.

``Besides O.J.'s guilt or innocence, the big question of this trial is which side comes out on top,'' says Ms. Raeder, vice chair of the ABA's Committee on Federal Rules of Evidence and Criminal Procedure..

Because of aggressive competition in reporting the Simpson trial by mass-market newspapers such as the National Enquirer and video tabloids such as ``Hard Copy,'' and ``Current Affair,'' several traditional news journalists here admit that they have pushed the envelope on what is newsworthy.

``There is a lot of self-loathing going on by those who feel they've become so immersed in the story that they've lost perspective,'' says Judy Muller, reporter for ABC Nightline. ``Out of competition, we have blurred the line between the public's right to know and our need to keep them hooked.''

But some observers insist that with skillful managing, the legal system can accommodate both the rights of defendants and the rights of the media and the public.

The greatest concern about the saturation media coverage of the murders and the pretrial maneuvering has been the potential effects on choosing impartial jurors. Yet selection of a jury of eight blacks, one white, two Latinos, and one native American was successfully completed Thursday. (Video blackout resumes this week, however, as the process of choosing 15 alternate jurors begins.)

``There's not a legal analyst around who agrees with keeping cameras out,'' notes Professor Robert Pugsley of Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. ``Taking cameras out gives more power to the media he is so concerned about.''

Because of repeated media inaccuracies, Harvey Levin, a reporter for local TV station KCBS, says the Simpson case will be looked back on as a benchmark in evaluating the use and quality of sources, which story angles are gratuitous and which serve the public interest, and how reporters can avoid becoming a pawn to defense, prosecution, or police. But, he says, ``we are so far into this case right now that we don't have the ability to step back and make those decisions.''

Such immersion may not be excused but is understandable, several media analysts say. ``Simpson coverage has highlighted one unforeseen consequence of the electronic era,'' says Brian Stonehill of Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

``Instant access to a fast-moving story short-circuits judgment because we can get pictures on the air immediately without the chance to consider their importance, accuracy, and meaning.''

Because of a California law prohibiting cameras in the courtroom during jury selection - a measure intended to protect prospective jurors' right to privacy - journalists have for weeks been limited to live, audio transmissions of proceedings and verbal descriptions by a pool of one to three reporters.

There is no federal constitutional right by media to have television in the courtroom, Raeder of the ABA and others say. And California statute grants the judge discretion to remove cameras if he believes they jeopardize fairness.

Judge Ito has threatened to eject the TV cameras several times and has promised his final policy ruling by today.

``The judge has been using the threat of pulling the plug [on TV cameras] as a way of making journalists toe the line,'' says Raeder.

That tactic has irked some journalists here who feel that no matter what Ito decides, his moves have already chipped away at the press's First Amendment rights.

``Clearly, Ito's threats have made the press skittish about flexing First Amendment muscle,'' says Sally Ann Stewart, who is covering the trial daily for USA Today. ``Reporters have backed away from such matters as demanding to hear legal motions that should be heard in open court. That concerns me.''

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