September 24, 2007

O.J. Leads the Way in a Week of Déjà Vu News

PEJ News Coverage Index Sept. 16 - 21, 2007

The sense of déjà vu was eerie. On Sept. 19, with cameras watching from above, there was O.J. Simpson traveling in a slow motorcade that would make national news. This time he was riding in a blue Dodge rather than a white Bronco, the city was Las Vegas not L.A, and the crime was kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon instead of murder.

But it didn’t take long for the breathless television coverage to take viewers back a dozen years to the murder case that divided a nation among racial lines, introduced a lengthy legal soap opera on cable TV, and created what one TV analyst called the rise of the “lawyer as celebrity.”

“Tonight the ‘Juice’ is loose,” declared Alan Colmes of the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes” after Simpson was freed on $125,000 bail. And the old Simpson murder case gang was back on the airwaves to talk about it.

Colmes’ Sept. 19 guests included Mark Fuhrman, the L.A. cop with the checkered record on race and Kato Kaelin, the Simpson houseguest and actor wannabee. Marcia Clark, the prosecutor in the murder case, showed up as a legal correspondent for “Entertainment Tonight.” Fred Goldman—the father of Ronald Goldman, who was murdered with Nicole Brown Simpson—made the media rounds, declaring “I don’t want to see any repeat of the celebrity game that was played during the criminal [murder] trial.”

Simpson’s Sept. 16 arrest in a strange case involving a dispute over sports memorabilia was the top story last week, filling 13% of the newshole according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index for Sept. 16-21. But there were huge discrepancies among media sectors that left no doubt this is very much a TV-driven event.

Simpson was only the tenth-biggest newspaper story last week, generating just 2% of the front-page coverage in print. And the case was only the fifth-leading story on radio, at 4% of the airtime. But his arrest was a mega-even on cable, where it filled a remarkable 33% of the airtime last week as the leading story. It was also the most covered subject on network TV (15%), and here there was a dramatic split by day part. While the case accounted for 7% of the coverage on the nightly newscasts, it filled 31% of the airtime on the more celebrity-oriented morning news shows.

Thus, at least for the first week of coverage, the Simpson case followed a pattern set in another celebrity scandal tale, the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Both stories were fueled by intense attention on cable news and broadcast network morning shows.

Simpson’s newest brush with the law was not the only big event last week to bring back old memories. ABC anchor Charles Gibson began his Sept. 17 newscast by declaring, “You’ll be forgiven if you think for a moment tonight that you’re in a time warp because we’re reporting on Hillary Clinton’s health care plan and criminal charges against O.J. Simpson. Sound familiar?”

Much of the coverage of the 2008 presidential race, the third-biggest story last week at 9%, was devoted to Democratic frontrunner Clinton’s newly unveiled health care plan. That initiative generated inevitable comparisons to her ill-fated 1993 effort to develop a national health care policy as First Lady. Another top-five story last week—the Sept. 20 demonstration in Jena, Louisiana protesting the prosecution of six black teens in connection with the beating of a white student—also created a sense of déjà vu, with some observers recalling the civil rights protests of the 60’s.

“The Rev. Jesse Jackson likened the gathering protest to historic events in Montgomery and Selma, Ala., and Little Rock, Ark,” reported a June 20 Associated Press story about Jena. The Jena protests became the fifth-biggest story last week, at 5% of the newshole.

The two other top-five stories last week involved Iraq. Dominated by coverage of a lethal shooting incident involving private contractor Blackwater, the situation inside Iraq was the second biggest story, at 10%. The Iraq policy debate, which dominated Sept. 9-14 news coverage (at 36%) thanks to the so-called “Petraeus Report,” dropped off dramatically last week. It finished as the fourth-biggest story, filling only 5% of the newshole.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)

More than one-third of last week’s stories about the 2008 campaign for the White House focused largely on Clinton’s Sept. 17 announcement of her new health care plan to provide insurance for everyone. With Clinton herself joking about her disastrous effort to craft a health care policy 14 years ago, media flashbacks were inevitable.

Juxtaposing images of Clinton’s announcement last week with 1993 footage of her, Brit Hume’s Fox News Channel newscast noted that “it was 14 years ago that then First Lady Hillary Clinton led the effort for her husband President Bill Clinton’s complex and bureaucratic version of universal coverage which failed to get the approval of a Democratically controlled Congress.” With talk hosts also buzzing about Clinton’s second stab at health care coverage, the presidential race was the leading topic (at 17%) in the radio sector last week.

And if Clinton conjured up memories of 1993, the arrest of Simpson made it feel like 1995 all over—at least as far as the media scrum was concerned.

On Sept. 19, NBC aired video of a shackled O.J. in a Las Vegas courtroom as part of a report on “the Simpson circus” that surrounded his arrest. The story featured demonstrators, several people dressed in costume, and as correspondent George Lewis noted, “an enormous gaggle of reporters and camera crews [and] celebrity legal analysts including Marcia Clark."

So intense was the scramble for snippets of Simpson news that at least two media outlets, Fox News and ABC, reported they had staffers on the plane that flew the former football star from Las Vegas to his home in Florida.

On the Sept. 20 edition of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” viewers learned, for example, that on that flight home, Simpson watched “Ocean’s Thirteen,” played with his puppy, ate a sandwich, and “showed no visible signs of strain.”

A dozen years ago, the coverage of Simpson’s acquittal on murder charges highlighted a deep social divide, with the strikingly contrasting images of celebrating African-Americans and stunned and sullen white audiences. What is unclear from last week’s coverage of Simpson’s arrest is whether this case will strike the racial nerve that the first trial did with anywhere near the same intensity.

One story that did illustrate deep-seated racial ills last week was the situation in Jena, Louisiana where a crowd of demonstrators estimated to be in the thousands came to the largely white town to protest the charges leveled against six black teens. News coverage of protestors marching, carrying signs, and chanting provided another dose of news déjà vu last week, harking back to an earlier and more tumultuous time in American race relations.

“It has been many years since we have seen black Americans marching in large numbers in a southern town demanding equal justice,” observed ABC anchor Gibson on his Sept. 20 newscast. “But it happened today in tiny Jena, Louisiana where thousands upon thousands came.”

Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ

Note: On the evenings of Thursday, September 20, and Friday, September 21, CNN aired specials on the events taking place in Jena, Louisiana. Those programs were not included in this week's sample.