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Black, white reporters offer divergent views on Simpson trial

The Simpson Trial in Black and White
The Simpson Trial in Black and White
By Tom Elias and Dennis Schatzman

General Publishing Group: 1996

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This review first appeared in the American Reporter in 1996.

With everyone and his hangers-on writing a book about the O.J. Simpson trial in its immediate aftermath, it can be hard to figure out who actually has something to say. Obviously, most of the attorneys who participated have an agenda in their books, as do the friends of Simpson and the Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman families.

But a pretty insightful book, "The Simpson Trial in Black and White," has come from two journalists who covered the trial – two journalists who shared the same courtroom seat yet came to very different conclusions about Simpson's guilt, much as America in general came to very different conclusions – and, as with American in general, the two authors split along racial lines.

Tom Elias, who is white, covered the trial for the Scripps Howard News Service; Dennis Schatzman for The Sentinel, a black newspaper in Los Angeles. Under Judge Lance Ito's media lottery system, Elias and Schatzman found themselves sharing the same seat and having to divvy up the time each would have it (along with a third reporter in their pool).

At the end of the trial, Elias – as with most white Americans – thought Simpson was guilty and his money had gotten him off. Schatzman, along with most black Americans, believed Simpson had been framed by a racist system.

What makes "The Simpson Trial in Black and White" so fascinating is that it is organized by topic (domestic violence, the witnesses, Mark Fuhrman), with Elias and Schatzman then devoting a chapter to their impressions and observations of that part of the trial. The only area where there was general agreement between the two men was the chapter on Ito, whom both thought was incompetent and incapable of restraining the powerful personalities in his courtroom.

But elsewhere, witnesses Schatzman thought credible Elias found unbelievable. Evidence Elias thought critical Schatzman dismissed as irrelevant.

And the two writers' styles are as divergent as their views. Elias wrote the book like the journalist he is (no longer with Scripps Howard, he continues to write a syndicated opinion column on California issues) – dry, analytical, logical. Schatzman writes with fire and passion – as a reader, you feel the anger blacks have toward a judicial system they feel is patently unfair. The only time Elias shows similar passion is when Schatzman accuses him of being a racist and Elias writes of his Jewish family's escape from the Holocaust.

But to be fair, there are several times Schatzman goes overboard, engaging in hyperbole that undermines the strength of his arguments. And at one point, speaking of two female defense attorneys, Schatzman admittedly engages in out and out sexism that hurts his credibility: "Although [Shawn] Chapman was a bust as a litigant asking questions of potential jurors during voir dire, she damn sure looked good doing it, waving her hair in the air." And of Sara Caplan, in the same paragraph, Schatzman wrote: "I don't think there was a male reporter anywhere in the courthouse who didn't express an interest in taking a couple of laps around the judge's sofa with her."

What becomes clear in this book, though, is the very real difference in perception of the trial between black America and white America. What white readers should bring away from this book is a realization that while for whites there are racial issues and nonracial issues, blacks have no such luxury – for black Americans, all issues are racial issues.

To their great credit, Elias and Schatzman close the book by challenging readers of all backgrounds to at least respect one another's differences, to, as Elias quotes Rodney King, "all get along," and offer their own friendship, born of the stress of covering the biggest trial in years, born despite their disagreements and differences, as an example of how whites and blacks can get along.