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'Mea culpa! Mea culpa!' we shout. It's another media morning after


ONCE O.J. Simpson was under lock and key, the press found itself in a quandary: How would it keep the most exciting murder case in years alive without looking as if it were pandering to its insatiable, irresponsible, hopelessly vulgar audience?

There were easy, legitimate choices at first: the spouse-abuse angle, the race angle, even the rental car angle. (Why did Hertz keep O.J. as a spokesman after his 1989 arrest, and did that Bronco have unlimited mileage?)

But by the weekend after the great freeway chase, the media had finally alighted upon its favorite and most narcissistic angle for extending any story: "Is it all the media's fault?"

As if to echo a cover story on pre-O.J. media excess in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "This Week with David Brinkley" featured a solid hour of media finger-pointing starring Steven Brill of Court TV and the inevitable Sam Donaldson.

On my local 11 o'clock news, an anchorman solemnly intoned about those in the media who "rush to cash in on O.J. Simpson" even as he justified another rerun of the 911 tapes by offering them in "exclusive" digital sound.

Time magazine ran a full-page apology for its darkened Simpson cover of the week before; "Nightline" turned away from O.J. one night, but only after a patronizing lecture on its (and our) civic responsibility to pay attention to other, presumably duller, topics of greater import.

Since I have some professional interest in press self-examination, it bothered me that I found myself longing to hear more about that bogus bloody ski mask than about whether the media were misbehaving.

And now I realize why: I've heard it all before, too often, too recently. Like a guilty alcoholic the morning after a binge, the media are now engaging in the identical ritual of self-flagellation each time a sensational story reaches a momentary pause in its action.

But the point seems not so much to engage in earnest press criticism as to vamp for time -- and preen.

The pattern for this journalistic tic was set during the Whitewater frenzy last spring. As new revelations from Little Rock slowed to a trickle in early April and the investigation of the Clintons' investments passed out of sight into the office of the special counsel, the press stopped wallowing in Whitewater and started wallowing in the question of whether it had wallowed too much in Whitewater.

Not only were the self-doubts the same as those now being raised about the Simpson coverage, but they were initially prompted by another doctored, grimly monochromatic Time magazine cover -- a misleadingly cropped, five-month-old photo of a seemingly doomed president.

The media indulged in similar group mea culpas during the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan saga, the Menendez trial and the Bobbitt case. But to what avail? If the press really took any of these bouts of soul-searching seriously, surely it wouldn't indulge in the same behavior over and over again.

In truth the press and public will never stop devouring these stories, and no wonder: They are crime stories (albeit at most a potential white-collar crime in the case of Whitewater).

No, they are not as important as health care, but they are often far more compelling. Drama doesn't get much more primal than crime and punishment -- especially when the crime is murder within a family.

While the most important domestic news story of the mid-1930s was the New Deal, that didn't stop America from paying rapt attention to the Lindbergh kidnapping trial.

In the Simpson case, the media's behavior has been the usual mixed bag. Tabloids will be tabloids, whether they're sold at supermarkets or broadcast as TV news magazines.

The rest of the press has tried to stick to the facts and has usually succeeded. Either way, it's absurd to blame the media for either overcovering or prejudging a case in which lawyers on both sides engage daily in dueling leaks and press conferences, all carefully crafted to spin public opinion.

A real press sin is its increasing tendency to find journalism more fascinating than the stories it is covering.

The Simpson trial, the Menendez retrial and the Whitewater hearings can't begin a moment too soon, if only to keep the press so busy we'll have no energy left for talking about ourselves.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

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