Will Bryant Trial Be an O.J.-Style Media Event?


To cover the sexual assault trial of L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant, joked Ed Helms, "senior legal analyst" for Comedy Central's Daily Show,
last week, "what I lack in accuracy, I will make up for in volume." Stories reported in the morning will be discredited by noon, he said, and "no source will be too unreliable."

Obviously, memories of the excesses of 1995's O.J. Simpson criminal trial looms over the Bryant trial to come. The Simpson case undoubtedly prompted more legal analysis and babble than had ever been on TV or radio, but, back then, there seemed to be less media to start with. For example, there was no Fox News, and the Internet was relatively new. It's right to wonder what this Kobe story will bring.

The battle over publicity in the case accelerated late last week, as Eagle County (Colo.) Judge Frederick Gannett issued a gag order to keep trial participants from continuing to leak sensitive facts about the case to media. That order followed numerous disclosures regarding the history and mental health of Bryant's accuser, and the Los Angeles Times
has petitioned the court to unseal documents assembled by police during the investigation.

According to reports from Eagle, Gannett said he will likely issue orders this week to limit still and TV cameras in his courtroom to one each and a separate order asking the media to exercise suitable decorum in and around the small courthouse. Good luck.

Court TV has already asked to put a camera in the courtroom for Bryant's Aug. 6 arraignment and says it will cover the trial live if given the chance. Its location might be moved if the defense seeks a venue change, possibly to Denver.

Photos and IDs of Bryant's accuser—both accurate and inaccurate—were distributed over the Internet last week, and radio talk took center stage for a while when Los Angeles-based host Tom Leykis revealed the name of Bryant's accuser on the air. Leykis thinks shielding alleged rape victims and naming the alleged attacker is unfair. If the accusation proves false, he said, then Bryant is actually the victim.

The Bryant case is already a major local story in the Denver—which includes the alleged crime scene in far suburban Eagle—and in Los Angeles, where Bryant is a star. The prosecution's and defense's press conferences of July 18 proved compelling television—especially when an intense Bryant showed up with his attorneys and his photogenic wife and admitted adultery but denied rape.

With so much yet to be determined regarding access, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC said it was too soon to know how much coverage the case would get. "We haven't had a serious discussion about that yet," said CNN spokesman Matt Furman.

Denver's KUSA(TV) and KCNC-TV maintain bureaus in Eagle, and other Denver stations make frequent trips to the mountain area to report weather and other news. Fox, Viacom and Tribune have stations in both markets and are likely to take advantage of that potential synergy. And L.A. stations are likely to send crews out to Colorado, particularly for major developments.

Bryant's eventual return to the Denver DMA, says KMGH(TV) News Director Byron Grandy, will be a huge event. "It will be overwhelming for Eagle residents and frustrating for some."

The sheer volume of journalists descending on the small town of Eagle, cautions KCNC-TV Denver News Director Angie Kuckarski, "is going to make a certain amount of noise. We have a responsibility to be accurate and responsible. No decision is too small to discuss."

The Bryant case is "a great story," says Jerry Burke, Fox News Channel's executive producer for daytime programming. "It's a great crime story; it's a great pop-culture story and a great relationship story. By doing those stories, we are accused of contributing to the media frenzy. But you could go all the way back to Homer. Why was he writing about Achilles and about Troy? Because they were great stories."

Veteran sports journalist Vince Doria, vice president for news at ESPN, agrees that, "if you're an athlete and you haven't committed sexual abuse or been arrested drunk driving, you're pretty much lionized. If an athlete hasn't been arrested and makes himself accessible to the media, the media tends to think he's a good guy."

Now, since the Bryant allegations surfaced, ESPN has done a special report on marital infidelity and sexual aggression among professional athletes.