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HERE WE go again. Trial by headline. Jurisprudence by sound bite.

Has the jury reached a verdict?Of course. We've been deliberating this case for days. Not only that, we've been watching "Hard Copy."

"Guilty as charged!" shouts the Gallup Poll.

Justice in America, 1990s-style.

Actually, we might be on to something here. Imagine how much money the taxpayers could save by abolishing the court system and turning over the administration of justice to the media and the pollsters.

Just think: no more complicated, costly court trials. No more endless appeals to higher courts. No more tedious jury duty for busy citizens.

The police and prosecutors would turn over their evidence, real and imagined, to the local newspaper, the evening news programs and the tabloid TV shows. The evidence would be published and broadcast - preferably in the form of titillating tidbits, fed to the public morsel by morsel - and then the pollsters would start making their phone calls.

Why, we could resolve these criminal cases in a matter of days, or even hours, instead of having them drag on for months or years.

Sounds crazy? Well then, we've all gone nuts. For all practical purposes, we're already operating this way.

Take the case of O.J. Simpson.

The former football star's ex-wife and a friend of hers were slain Sunday night in Los Angeles. By Wednesday night, some news organizations were reporting that O.J. Simpson's arrest was "imminent" or "imminent within a few days," even though police had not even named Simpson as a suspect - not officially, anyway.

After being charged Friday with two counts of murder, Simpson fled before being apprehended in his driveway.

Actually, for purposes of this discussion, Simpson's legal status doesn't much matter. It's beside the point.

The question is this: Why is Simpson being tried in the media?

Or better yet: Why have the media convicted Simpson of murder when he hasn't even been arrested?

The answer is simple. Cynical and self-serving, perhaps, but simple: People keep feeding us information. What are we supposed to do with it - put it in a time capsule and dig it up 200 years from now?

We're in the news business, for heaven's sake.

The problem is, we no longer seem to know the difference between news gathering and rumor-mongering, between legitimate information and wild-eyed speculation.

Maybe all this "evidence" that seems to make Simpson a viable murder suspect will eventually turn up as Exhibits A through Z in a court trial. It's conceivable that all these bloody gloves and blood-soaked towels we've been hearing about - mostly through the courtesy of anonymous "sources" - will provide the underpinnings for a murder conviction.

But we couldn't possibly know that when we write about this stuff, or talk about it on TV and radio. Even if the evidence is real and the sources are reliable - usually, "reliable sources" are investigators working on the case - there is every likelihood that the sources have ulterior motives for feeding us this information: to pressure a suspect, to manipulate public opinion, to smoke out potential witnesses . . .

Do the media really want to be used this way? Is this really an appropriate function for the free press in America - serving as a pawn for police and prosecutors?

Every time a case like this leaps into the headlines, the media react the same way. We jump in with both feet. We play it for all it's worth. And then we begin agonizing over what we've done.

We hold panel discussions to examine our judgment and ethics. Media superstars debate our behavior on "Nightline" and "Crossfire." We wallow in sanctimonious introspection.

And then we go right out and do it again.