Comments from The Outpost

27 December 1996

by Dan Murphy

Good evening.

On this evening, we take note of the passing of the year of 1996. It seems like this has been a particularly long year. It did have 366 days, as opposed to the more common 365, but the difference seems greater than that. 1996 seems like it started several years ago.

Maybe it's just that this year included some particularly long and trying events, including the trial of the OJ Simpson by the city of Los Angeles, and the trial of the American people by Mssrs. Clinton, Dole, and company. These were a two of a number of events that seems to take longer than humanly possible, particularly given the meagerness of the final result.

Take OJ #1. Please.

Much has been said and written about the trial, and about the conduct and strategies of the prosecution in particular. But the mistake of the prosecution, first and foremost, was to take way, way too long. This was a prime example of a common flaw of lawyers -- their belief that more is always better, especially when it comes to how much they say or write, or how much evidence they present.

The same might be said of the defense, but the aim of the defense is acquittal, and time is almost always on the side of the defendant. This is something that nobody told the prosecution, apparently, because they carried on and droned on week after week, long after the jury had tuned out and was ready to go home.

The point is, if you can't prove somebody guilty in a week or two, you aren't going to do it in four or five months. A mound of weak evidence doesn't equate to a few nuggets of strong evidence, and if you have the strong evidence, presenting a lot of weak evidence in addition just confuses the jury and brings the shadow of doubt into the case. This was clearly a case of the tail wagging the dog -- the lawyers were so busy lawyering that they forgot about winning the case. This is all apart from whether OJ was really guilty or not. If he was, the prosecution simply blew it; if not, they wasted a ton of the taxpayers money.

The fact that some of the prosecutorial team made out like bandits on the books and talk shows doesn't justify their incompetence in the courtroom. It may, however, explain their interest in an incredibly long trial -- the more visibility, the better the book deals. And that, my friends, is a conflict of interest as clear as you can find in our labyrinthine society.

Conflict of interest is also a recurring theme in another long and tiring contemporary saga, the Whitewater investigation and its various branches and spurs. It didn't start in this year of 1996, of course, and it shows no sign of ending for years to come either. Like an old stew pot on the stove, the Republicans keep finding a few more bones and hunks of roadkill to toss in when the previous batch has cooked down. Like the OJ affair, the prosecutorial process is taking hundreds of time as long to conduct as the original alleged events did to happen. And like the OJ affair, the special and other prosecutors in this case ought to learn that, if you can't find the fire, then quit blowing the smoke.

Finally, in the realm of interminable events, we have the 1996 presidential campaign. This isn't just my imagination here; presidential campaigns really have become interminable. As soon as one ends, the next one starts up. News reporters and commentators are as guilty of this as the politicians, and it happens all across the spectrum of news organizations. Just the other day, I heard NPR reporters discussing how soon Clinton would effectively be a lame duck and how various players were plotting for the next election.

The campaign itself was a sorry spectacle as voted by the jury of the American people, that is, by the majority who voted "not present" at their official voting places. The problem is that negative ads and mindless repetition have become the sum and substance of the campaign. The incessant and massive TV negative advertising schedules convince voters of who they DON'T want to vote for, and the dumbed-down rhetoric that the candidates are programmed to say over and over again in speeches and TV debates does little to inspire more positive sentiments.

Figuring out how to combat this trend is not easy. Various proposals for limiting campaign spending, while well-intentioned, run afoul of First Amendment guarantees and can easily lead to even more power in the hands of special interests. Another interesting proposal is to restrict political advertising on television, just as cigarette ads are restricted. The irony here isn't intentional but certainly can't be denied. I think perhaps a better idea is to require all broadcast outlets to provide free time at least equal to the amount of paid political advertising time that they sell. The free time would help to give visibility to those candidates who believe that public service should NOT be primarily about raising money to get reelected.

And so it's farewell to 1996. Although I chose to recapitulate a few things that were too long on form and too short on substance this year, I remain optimistic about our overall prospects for 1997. Most people continue to live and let live, and most seem to know that what we have, despite its vagaries and frustrations, is only better than the all the alternatives. The various juries that have rendered decisions this year have generally been wiser than the pundits and analysts who tried to second guess them.

We continue to be lucky as a people, but good luck favors those who are paying attention, just as opportunity favors the prepared.

And so, with the hope that you keep paying attention, may I also wish you a good new year. May it exceed your expectations.

For wmbr, this is Dan Murphy. And that's the view for this week and this year as I watch the passing parade from the Outpost.

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