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It was easy to see that O. J. trial and TV were a bad mix

What a surprise. Don Hewitt, the legendary creator of the 60 Minutes TV show, has come out against cameras in courtrooms.

The wackiness of the O. J. Simpson trial turned him around. The law's dignity has been destroyed, he said, and the trial has become little more than show biz.

As Hewitt said: "I think Ito, the judge, should have realized that the camera was going to turn the courtroom into a movie set. You know, with Marcia Clark coming from hair and makeup and Johnnie Cochran coming from wardrobe. It's undignified.

". . . When you go on trial, you should be judged by a jury of your peers who sit there all day long and listen to all the evidence, weigh all the evidence. You shouldn't be tried in a court of public opinion where there's a guy who's not watching until his wife says, "Hey, Harry, come in here, they've got the socks on now.' . . . We go in and out of this thing because somebody says, "Hey, this is the good part.' That's not how you should be tried."

Hewitt is right. But he's a bit late. The time to have spoken up was last year, before the trial began, when Judge Lance Ito was pondering whether to let the cameras in.

That's when the views of someone like Hewitt _ a legend in the broadcast industry _ might have had an impact on Ito's thinking.

Of course, Hewitt could respond that last year he didn't know that the trial would turn into a showcase for ego-puffed lawyers, self-absorbed witnesses, or that jurors would see it as an opportunity to launch careers as bestselling authors.

But why didn't he know? As an expert on TV's impact, Hewitt should have known what to expect. Thousands of ordinary people did.

These were the people from all over the country who took the time to write to Judge Ito, urging him to ban cameras.

This was after I wrote a column suggesting that people who were against televising the trial drop the judge a note telling him so.

More than 15,000 of them did just that.

As you might remember, the judge had his clerk pack the letters in boxes and stack the boxes in his courtroom to let the lawyers and TV viewers know how a large segment of the population felt.

That, in itself, should have been a hint as to the potential entertainment value of the trial. If the cameras hadn't already been going, it's doubtful that the judge would have used the boxes of letters for a visual stunt. Why have his clerk risk a hernia if the audience consisted of 50 people in his courtroom?

No, once the cameras were on, there was no chance that the trial would maintain dignity or even sanity. TV does that to people, whether they are lawyers or oddballs telling talk show hosts why they cheated on their wives with their mothers-in-law.

Should it be any surprise that a moocher like Kato would follow his testimony with a book, probably one of the few he has ever owned, and a round of appearances on comedy shows?

Those 15,000 people knew because in their own way they are just as expert as Hewitt on the subject of TV. They've been watching it. They saw the show biz aspects of Simpson's low-speed car chase. They saw how half of California's deranged population started offering their fantasies as evidence.

Would the trial have been any different if Judge Ito had listened to the grass-roots wisdom of those 15,000 people?

Probably. Without the cameras, the coverage would have been provided by newspapers and brief spoken reports on TV. The written or spoken word doesn't have the drama of lawyers snarling at each other, members of the victims' families dabbing their eyes, or O. J. shaking hands with a star-struck prosecution witness.

The judge might have been more inclined to crack the whip at stalling lawyers and preening witnesses. The lawyers might have decided not to waste their blustery acting talents on so small a live audience.

And it's doubtful that jurors would have been so eager to con and lie their way onto the panel if they didn't sense that they were going to be part of a major television production, giving them the opportunity to cash in.

People knew and some of us said so. As I wrote last November, when Judge Ito displayed his mail: "I want the trial on TV, every lurid, disgusting, heart-pounding, spine-tingling, fantasy-building moment. But not for all the lofty reasons offered by lawyers for the TV stations. . . . I want to wallow in the muck just like millions of other muck-craving Americans."

I'm not going to take this obvious opportunity to say "I told you so" to someone like Don Hewitt.

As it happens, I don't have to. Now he knows.

Tribune Media Services, Inc.