Comments from The Outpost

7 February 1997

by Dan Murphy

A Night of Contrasts

Good evening.

Tuesday evening of this week was one of the better news nights recently. It was also giving the TV network news directors headaches as they realized that they were facing the decision of whether to cut away from the President's State of the Union address to cover the verdict in OJ trial number 2 and its reaction.

And, in what has become the self-conscious style of more and more American institutions and personalities, various newspeople ruminated about just that question as the speech approached. It was pretty funny, actually, to hear Dan Rather on CBS reporting various capitol hallway conversations regarding whether or not CBS would cut to the trial result. Begins to make one wonder who is the watcher and who is the watchee anyway.

Does this all say something profound about our contemporary American culture? Probably, but I'm not going to try to plumb those particular depths this evening.

Instead, I thought I'd follow the lead of the networks -- do the President's speech but cut away to the trial as quick as possible. Hey, if it works for the big guys...

There's was also something really quite fascinating about the interplay of the two scenes. On the one hand, we had the events in the capitol, filled with ceremony and circumstance, the pinnacles of the three branches of the US government gathered in one place. Everything quite predictable but pleasant enough to watch if one has even a little sense of history.

On the other hand, and the other coast, the OJ trial outcome was genuinely not predictable. It was a street level event, with cameras, reporters, and a great many people waiting outside the courthouse for the news. The state of the union address has at least some possibility of influencing decisions that will affect everyone in the country. The OJ trial outcome will affect no one except those directly involved and will not likely show up in history books in a future generation.

The fact that we could see both unfolding as if side by side is a particular consequence of the television age. You know, back in the '60s, we used to say, "the revolution will not be televised, the revolution will be live!" With the aging of the boomers, we now have to concede that the revolution will in fact be televised, and most people will just watch it from their usual couch positions.

Anyhow, as to the State of the Union, I think one of the most noteworthy aspects of it and of the general tone in Washington these days is the major reduction in general hostility and partisan carping between the two major parties. Everyone is talking about bipartisan efforts, cooperation, and so forth. So much so that I'm starting to get worried! When I consider some of the things that got passed in the last session as a result of White House - Capitol Hill cooperation, I get to thinking, hey, maybe gridlock isn't such a bad thing.

I do have to give the Republicans credit for their choice of spokesman to deliver their party's response, J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. Yes, he's the only black republican in congress, but it says something about the mood of the party that he was given the nod. Or perhaps they were just thinking about last year's deadly drone by then- presidential candidate Bob Dole and wanted to make sure no one would be reminded of that ever again.

Cut to Santa Monica, California. Washington to Santa Monica. From the marble halls of tradition and power to the state which continues unchallenged as the pop culture capitol of America.

Whoa! Different verdict! They don't call it guilty in this kind of trial, they call it "liable". Well, means the same thing -- he did it. Other jury said he didn't. Both juries were unanimous, even though this one didn't have to be to reach a verdict.

I'm reminded of the old saying: A man with one clock knows what time it is. A man with two clocks is never sure.

Vast amounts of analysis have been offered on each of these trials and the differences between them. Here are a few points I think should be kept in mind:

Race -- it's an issue but not as big an issue as much of the media likes to portray it. African-American jury members aren't going to let someone get away with murder just because he's black. What they may bring to the jury, however, is a bit more skepticism and suspicion of the police -- suspicion which seems increasingly warranted as more and more occurances of tampered and mishandled evidence turn up in other cases.

The second trial arguably produced a decision closer to the factual truth. It was far less affected by debates about the credibility of the evidence and the actions of the police, and it had the defendant himself on the stand.

What of the first trial? The best summary I've heard is this: the "LA Police department framed a guilty man". The jury in the first case thus rendered a verdict not so much on the guilt of the defendant but on the adequacy of the prosecution's case. They found it seriously lacking.

Justice -- has it been served? If OJ is really innocent, as the first trial decided, then he's a victim, big time. If he's guilty, as the second trial said in effect, then justice can only be effected in the form of money -- never really an adequate compensation for loss of life.

These two trials remind us that justice is an art, not a science. The guilty will sometimes go free; the innocent will sometimes go to jail. The system, when it's working as intended, is biased to avoid the latter even at the cost of permitting some of the former.

The OJ trials received huge amounts of public attention for the reason that OJ is a celebrity and we love celebrities even when we hate them. All that is just entertainment, however. What these trials do provide of value is the opportunity to see the workings of the American justice system in considerable detail -- much greater than usual, and to give some thought as to how it works and how it might be made to work better. That could affect us all, even after OJ has been long forgotten.

For this week, that's the view from the Outpost. For WMBR, this is Dan Murphy.

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