25 years ago, using a primitive, pre-Windows newsroom computer system, I could type “lower 1/3” graphic information for the name Erwin Chemerinsky with the same speed as I could Johnnie Cochran.
In putting together nightly recaps of the O.J. Simpson trial, using network interviews, I knew I could always count on a soundbite from the USC law professor that would encapsulate legal analysis in a credible and understandable way. There were some nights I would scan the network news “clean feed” for Professor Chemerinsky analysis before I would look for the most sizzling courtroom drama.
In thinking about how the Simpson case affected my career and media overall, I thought of those who one were instantly transformed from pedestrian to pundit because of the one-of-a-kind case. Chemerinsky came to mind first among them.
He’s now the Dean of the Law School at the University of California-Berkeley and was kind enough to answer a few of my questions, all of these years after his regular appearances on national and, consequently, local news.
Like many who become analysts on TV, it wasn’t part of a PR plan. “I was a professor at the University of Southern California Law School. Reporters, print and broadcast, began interviewing me. When there was the preliminary hearing in the OJ case, I was asked to be an on-air commentator for (local L.A. TV station) KCBS because I had been interviewed by them before. I initially said ‘no,’ then agreed to a half day, then began doing it every day. That led to lots of other media calls and appearances.”
He says being on TV regularly didn’t change his teaching. His classes didn’t become more popular. “It did not change my professional life at all. I never missed a class because of media commitments. It did not affect my publications or my pro bono legal work.”
Even with criticism of the media’s handling of the case, this analyst says, “I think the media overall did a very good job. I think that sometimes daily events got blown out of proportion. Sometimes there was too much of an effort to make that day’s events seem important, even if they weren’t.” As someone whose job it was to do, just that on many nights, it’s easy to agree.
Chemerinsky said he learned something about how the media works. “I saw the tremendous variation in the knowledge and quality of reporters. Some were truly terrific in their knowledge and preparation. Some not. It was an interesting year and a half. I think I became better at being interviewed (being succinct, being clear, talking in sound bites). But no real lasting legacy.”
Thinking of all of the pundits who took up so much air time, the beginning of transforming cable TV into, essentially, talk TV, several of them cashed in on their Simpson exposure. After communicating with now Dean Chemerinsky, it seems he used his opportunity on TV to simply educate the public about the law – an extension of his life’s work as a legal educator. 25 years later, that’s actually an impressive lasting legacy.