Marcia Clark: Zimmerman Trial Shows How Media Improved Since O.J. (Guest Column)

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George Zimmerman (center) consults with counsel Don West and Lorna Truett.

The "Trial of the Century" prosecutor says while few people follow the entire process, the detailed coverage on cable means more credible witnesses, competent judges and no celebrity lawyers: "The level of discourse has improved tremendously."

This op-ed was written exclusively for THR by Marcia Clark, the former Los Angeles deputy district attorney who is best known for her work as the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. She has since become an on-air legal analyst and a best-selling author. Killer Ambition, the latest installment of her Rachel Knight legal-thriller series, was published last month and focuses on the investigation and prosecution of a Hollywood power player for murder.

Whether it was the "Trial of the Century" may be subject to debate, but no one disputes the fact that the O.J. Simpson murder trial was an unparalleled media circus.

It seemed to happen overnight. On the eve of the preliminary hearing, the parking lot behind the courthouse sprouted a fleet of satellite trucks. Not long after that, a slew of vendors appeared, selling T-shirts, mugs, buttons, hats – you name it – emblazoned with the images of Nicole, Ron, Simpson and the lawyers. And then there were the street performers – mimes, acrobats, dancers. I’d call it bizarre, but frankly, that scene left "bizarre" a distant dot on the horizon.

But even more ubiquitous was the press. They were everywhere. Print reporters had their own wing on a floor inside the courthouse and the television reporters erected a base of operations, dubbed “Camp O.J.,” a multitiered scaffolding of dubious safety, across the street. Reporters and camera crews surrounded the building, packed the courthouse hallways and filled the courtroom five days a week. At every court recess, the press would pounce on anyone even remotely associated with the case as they walked through the door.

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Whether the 24/7 coverage was driven by public appetite or foisted upon the public by producers who saw the soap opera potential, the demand for news had become a hungry maw that required constant feeding. Competition for the latest and hottest piece of news led to reliance on sources that were minimally vetted, if indeed they were vetted at all. Every story was breathlessly recounted with very little concern for its veracity. Lawyers piled on to represent witnesses who had no real need for legal help, just to get their names in print. And wannabe witnesses and “friends” of Nicole Brown sold books and stories to tabloids for princely sums.

Somehow, in the midst of all this, the lawyers’ personal lives wound up in the spotlight. Like the rest of the frenzy, this too was unprecedented. Before the Simpson trial, lawyers were lucky if the press spelled their names right. But for some reason – maybe because the trial dragged on so long – the lawyers themselves became a media focus. Our families and friends were courted (stalked, actually) for stories. My hair and skirt length became prime time fodder for comedians and commentators, reporters showed up on my doorstep. People sold videos of me going to the dry cleaners (riveting stuff), the grocery store (wow) and taking my children to Travel Town. I kept thinking – hoping – it would stop, that the press would get bored and move on to better, more important matters, but it never did. In fact, for months after the trial, our personal lives continued to be covered in newspapers, tabloids and magazines.

But that was 19 years ago. Flash forward to the George Zimmerman trial, the latest in a long string of high-profile cases that have now become a staple on cable news channels. Have things changed? I think so, and largely for the better.

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One of those things is the media landscape. Since the '90s, there has been a proliferation of cable channels that have made trial coverage a regular staple. Broadcast network channels are largely out of the business of trial coverage other than the occasional headline update. That means that although a wide section of the nation may know that a trial is happening and have some general idea as to what it’s about, a relatively small number of people actively follow the case gavel to gavel.

That’s a good thing because a smaller audience means lawyers have less “reach,” i.e., less opportunity to spin the case for the jury pool. The upshot is a public far less tainted with pretrial posturing. Note, I didn't say completely untainted. Even though national news programs don’t focus on the case, the local news shows in the city where the trial takes place will give it more – if not exhaustive – airtime. And in fact, the lawyers in the Zimmerman case had to incorporate an additional step in the jury selection process to weed out those who'd been exposed to and unduly influenced by pretrial publicity. But even so, it didn’t take long for them to find a pool of jurors who hadn’t formed fixed opinions about the case.

A smaller audience also means less temptation for witnesses to sell their stories. That's a good thing for a couple of reasons. When witnesses sell their stories they damage their credibility. And when there's money to be made on testimony, there are bound to be "faux" witnesses who make up their stories for fame and profit. Again, it doesn't eliminate the problem entirely: Zimmerman's buddy, Mark Osterman, wrote a book defending Zimmerman four months after the shooting of Trayvon Martin. But he was the only one, and his book was admittedly an effort to support Zimmerman’s defense – not a tabloid expose of his sexual exploits.

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Here’s another change for the better: Judges don’t pander to the press or to Hollywood glitterati. No invitations to celebrities to join them in chambers, no television documentaries about their personal profiles. They just do their job. And especially in the trials of Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman, they do them well. Strong, decisive and no-nonsense, both of those judges make everyone toe the line, enforce the rules of evidence with an even hand and make sure no time is wasted while a sequestered jury languishes backstage. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the verdicts, it cannot be disputed that both sides got a fair trial.

Yet another change for the better: No more celebrity lawyers. We don't hear stories about the lawyers’ personal lives or see footage shot on their front doorsteps. Commentary now focuses on what they're doing in court and why they're doing it. In other words, their work – and that’s fair game. Yes, some will wind up becoming commentators on cable news shows after their trials are over (myself included), but that has its uses: if there’s going to be trial coverage, networks will need lawyers to explain the law, explain what’s happening and offer personal insight that can be helpful. In any case, the point is, by and large, punditry sticks to the point.

That's not to say that some of the shows don't devolve into mindless screaming or focus unduly on salacious – yet legally meaningless – details. They do. But overall, the level of discourse has improved tremendously.

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And the reporters in the courtroom report the evidence – they don’t try to inflate ridiculous claims from either side with false credibility in order to make the race seem closer. Certainly, hosts ask commentators for their opinions and the lawyers involved in the case stump for their respective sides, but there’s a line drawn between what happened in court and what the pundits think of it. That’s a big improvement. 

In addition, the reporting, by and large, has become more reliable. This I’ve seen first hand. It’s not uncommon for producers to tell me, “We’ve heard that the defense is going to put Ms. X on the stand, but we can’t go with it because it’s not confirmed.” That’s a far cry from the breathless race for the scoop during the O.J. trial that led to misreporting and false stories – most of them retracted too long after the fact for anyone to notice.

That’s a very important change for the better, because a main point of our established right to a public trial is that the public will hold the courts accountable. That right is rendered meaningless if irresponsible coverage misrepresents what’s going on.  

Do all these changes mean that the media hasn’t impacted the Zimmerman jury? That I can’t say. I can only say that there has been enough progress to at least hope that it hasn’t. Much.

Twitter: @thatmarciaclark