The Media Got Juiced On O.J.

If only O.J. Simpson had driven his white Bronco off into the sunset -- or off a cliff -- the world might be a better place. Between January 1 and September 29, the evening "news" programs on ABC, CBS and NBC devoted 1,392 minutes (23.2) to covering the O.J. Simpson trial. Those figures were compiled by the Tyndall Report, which provides a weekly account of how the networks fill their 20-minute daily news hole. In fact, the Simpson trial exceeded the combined coverage of the war in Bosnia and the Oklahoma City bombing, which, with a total of 1,292 minutes, have been the second and third most covered stories of the year. But, perhaps most disturbing, the network's reporting on the four major stories about the Gingrich revolution -- the convening of the 104th Congress, attempts to balance the federal budget, restructuring welfare and cutting Medicare -- received only 46 percent as much time as the trial. How do the networks rank? During the 9-month period, low-brow NBC News devoted 14.6 percent of this news coverage to O.J., CBS expended 12.5 percent of its time on the trial and ABC gave it a scant 9.1 percent. All three evening news shows were topped by the pre-eminent late night news program, ABC's Nightline. Since June 17, 1994 -- the night O.J. began taking the country on a ride -- Nightline has devoted 49 programs to the sordid Simpson saga, or 14.8 percent of its programming. "Don't you think that's a bit excessive? I asked Nightline publicist Eileen Murphy. "Obviously we don't, or we wouldn't have done it," she replied. Nightline's obsession with Simpson reached its peak during the first 100 days of Congress, when Gingrich and company were ushering the United States into the Third World. According to Extra!, the publication of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), between January 23 and March 15 Nightline devoted 45 percent of this programming to the trail. According to Nightline's Ted Koppel, one of the "virtues" of a television news system where ratings determine coverage is that the public decides what it wants. As he told the American Journalism Review's Jacqueline Sharkey, "If people are really tired of it, don't watch it, turn it off. You will be amazed at how quickly the networks get the message." Imagine: "Good evening, I'm Geraldo, sitting for Ted Koppel, and this is Nightline."

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