As Kathleen Sullivan covers O. J. Simpson, anything qualifies as entertainment

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- Kathleen Sullivan sits in the TV studio several miles from the O. J. Simpson trial sipping a can of Diet Coke.

She is wearing a dark gray suit jacket and a large gold necklace.

She is also wearing gray pants, but on TV nobody cares what you wear below the waist.

She is sitting behind the O. J. anchor desk at E! Entertainment Television, a 24-hour cable network "dedicated to the world of entertainment."

Pets and real estate

She has just finished with doggie "psychiatrist" Matthew Margolis, who has answered the question whether Kato the Akita could have picked up the bloody glove at Bundy and carried it to Rockingham. (Maybe; maybe not.)

A makeup woman comes out and touches up Sullivan's cheekbones with a sable brush.

Sullivan's hair, once so prematurely gray it got her fired from network television, is now dyed to a very dark auburn.

In two months, she will be 42, and that is getting old for a woman on television. (Men, apparently, can stay on television for as long as theycan sit upright in a chair. Ask David Brinkley and Mike Wallace.)

"Thirty back!" the director says loudly. "Ten back! Stand by. Here we go. Five. Four. Three. Two."

Sullivan's face brightens exactly on cue.

"Prime real estate or a prime pain?" she says into the camera. "We talk to Elaine Young, who sold O. J. his home 17 years ago!"

Young, wearing a very tight pink dress covered in sequins, tells how she also has sold homes to Sharon Tate, Rock Hudson and Jayne Mansfield.

And while a logical question to her might be, "Have you ever sold a house to someone who was not accused of murder, murdered, an AIDS victim or decapitated?" E! tries to be a little more upbeat than that.

It is one of only three networks that is carrying the Simpson trial live and gavel to gavel -- CNN and Court TV are the others -- and it likes to remind viewers of the difference.

On E!, for instance, you get to ask real estate brokers what effect gruesome stabbings have on property values.

"After Sharon Tate was murdered, I got dozens of calls from people wanting to buy the home," says Young, who is now with Coldwell Banker.

"That's macabre," Sullivan says.

"That's California!" Young chirps.

Go to commercial.

Which gives us a moment to ask ourselves the Big Question:

Is the gruesome double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman a fair subject for entertainment?

Everything is entertainment

And the answer is: What country have you been living in, pal?

In America, everything is a fair subject for entertainment.

The Simpson trial is the object of nightly jokes by David Letterman ("The jury asked Judge Ito if they could take a field trip to the Menendez brothers' house!"), and newspapers have done countless stories on the "lighter" side of the Simpson trial, from the button-sellers outside to the hair and dress styles of the participants inside.

Which has not stopped Kathleen Sullivan from getting rapped in the teeth by the critics.

Not only was E! looked upon as being tasteless for broadcasting the Simpson trial on the same network that carries radio shock-jock Howard Stern and the popular "Talk Soup," a daily review of talk shows, but Sullivan was looked upon as damaged goods.

She was the sweater girl for ABC during the 1984 Summer Olympics (for which she got an Emmy nomination) and then was made co-host in 1988 of "CBS This Morning." She was fired on Valentine's Day in 1989.

She was accused of sleeping with ABC executive Roone Arledge and tennis star Martina Navratilova (Sullivan denies both) and of having a "frisky" New York nightlife that left her looking tired and haggard on early morning TV.

'They called me old'

To Sullivan, her real sins were more plain: In a year in which her father died and her husband divorced her, she stopped coloring her gray hair and gained weight.

"They called me old, unattractive and said, 'No one wants to look at her anymore,' " Sullivan told a reporter. "I broke a lot of news interviews, but that wasn't important to them."

The subject is still painful enough to bring tears to her eyes, but there is still a flash of anger there, too.

Once asked if CBS was sexist in firing her, Sullivan said, "Well, I was sitting next to a man who was bald, overweight and grumpy." She was speaking of Harry Smith, who is still a co-host of the show.

And then there were those commercials: To many, Sullivan had crossed the line (the same one Linda Ellerbee had crossed) from journalism to commercialism when she started working for Weight Watchers.

So Sullivan came to E! with a certain amount of baggage.

And some of the reviews of her first day anchoring the trial were pretty rough.

One critic called E! "the network devoted to covering breaking fluff," and another said of Sullivan: "Appearing rusty and tense behind the giggles yesterday, she seemed at times to skirt the shoals of television burlesque."

Oh, yeah, one thing: Since Sullivan went on the air with the Simpson coverage, E!'s ratings have quadrupled.

After she finishes with her real-estate-agent-to-the-famous-dead, Sullivan takes a break and meets me in the green room, where poster boards on the wall are covered with the autographs of the guests who have sat here: Neil Sedaka, Julie Brown, Pauly Shore and Marla Maples.

"I'm walking a real tightrope," Sullivan says. "I have to use my journalistic instincts so I don't wander over the line of good taste."

And good taste counts?

"There are two dead people," she says. "But it's also been nine months plus since the murders and the American public has an interest that is unsatisfied. And . . ."

And?

"And the doggie psychiatrist was brilliant!" Sullivan says.

What the public wants

You can tell she is really into this, not defensive about it -- she really thinks doggie psychiatrists matter because that's what the American public wants, and the taste of the American public is the final arbiter.

"People say I am ridiculous?" she says. "Well, excuse me. How long did the prosecution spend on the plaintive wail of that dog? This is a medium in which people learn about the world. Dog owners want to know about Kato the dog. Condo owners want to learn about real estate. Bronco owners want to learn about the car."

Sullivan hunches forward and taps my knee. "I don't sit here and disdain people," she says. "You know what this is about? It's about getting along with our neighbors."

Sullivan goes on for a while in this vein.

Her frame of reference is very Southern California (she grew up here and now has a condo in Rancho Mirage, where she plays very serious golf for money) and talks a lot about "connections" and "dialoguing" and "healing."

Is there anyone you wouldn't put on the air? I ask.

"No," she says.

No?

"No, every opinion is valid," she says. "If you can express it, it is valid."

Which is a totally value-free way of looking at the world. And perhaps because Sullivan still feels the pain of being judged so harshly by others, she does not wish to judge others now.

"I know how important it is to not rush to judgment," she says. "And not just about O. J., but about everybody."

A friend of Simpson

Which brings up another point: Sullivan and Simpson have known each other for 23 years. They have done Olympic coverage together and have played in golf tournaments. Sullivan considers Simpson a friend.

Which is not to say she believes him not guilty of the murders. She simply won't say.

"Judge not lest ye be judged," she says.

C'mon, I say.

"He did, over the years, talk to me about Nicole," Sullivan says slowly, choosing her words carefully. "And here is what I can say publicly: Since the murders, I have bumped into some equally longtime friends of O. J., and we all have gone over every single incident we knew about involving O. J. and wondering and wondering and wondering. . . ."

Sullivan stops and looks away.

But O. J. Simpson has so many high-profile friends in the movie, sports and TV worlds, I say, and you don't see them going on Leno and saying, "I know this man and he is innocent! This man is not capable of these ghastly crimes!"

Sullivan pauses before she answers.

"Yes," she says. "You don't see that."

As long as the trial continues, Sullivan will have a steady job, a job she says she would like to continue in one form or another when the trial ends.

After she was fired from CBS, she was offered anchor jobs on "tabloid" TV shows, but she disdained them then and disdains them now.

"I am pretty proud of what I do," she says.

"I am not a Barbie doll. What I do is important work. If I can heal a wound or raise a consciousness, that is what I am about."

Very Southern California.

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