All L.A.'s a Stage as World Watches the Simpson Trial : Media: To many overseas, the drama displays what they see as America’s essence--Hollywood, racism and violence.
As millions of Americans tune in to the O.J. Simpson murder trial, much of the world is tuning in to America.
From the beginning, the Simpson case has been a kind of two-way mirror. While Americans debate its legal and moral content and reflect on its meaning for American society, the world watches and analyzes America’s media, its legal system and its seeming penchant for self-examination.
To many abroad, this is simply the quintessential American story: a gruesome murder in Hollywood (to Europeans, all of Los Angeles is Hollywood); an American hero’s flight down a freeway with those all-American accouterments, a gun and a cellular telephone, broadcast live to a country transfixed; then, court television and, possibly, a final act played out in state prison.
The drama is described as American soap opera and Hollywood action film, “Columbo” and “L.A. Law” in one. When, last June, fans lined the freeway to cheer on a man sought for murder and threatening suicide, it was viewed from afar as the the ultimate Hollywood blurring of life and docudrama.
“The fascinated nation is being presented a play that is half Shakespeare, half soap opera: Othello and Richard Kimble, garnished with a bit of Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ” wrote the German weekly magazine Stern, which has made much of the fact that Nicole Brown Simpson was born in Germany.
“I can’t imagine it happening anywhere else in the world,” said Nicole Marchand, a Belgian accountant who viewed the spectacle from Namur.
To audiences baffled by a country that prefers a tedious legal proceeding to the World Cup, foreign correspondents based in Washington and Los Angeles this summer have had to explain American psyche and sociology.
Millions of Americans are on a first-name basis with Simpson, they wrote. No, not first name--first initials . They feel as if he is a personal friend. They feel “as if a family member had been torn from their midst,” Stern explained.
“No country in the world builds pedestals for its heroes, especially its sporting heroes, as high and as gilded as this one does,” Independent of London correspondent David Usborne wrote days after Simpson’s dramatic arrest June 17.
Or, as his colleague Peter Pringle saw it, Americans were “once again confusing film stars and sports celebrities with real heroes.”
Europeans in particular seem incredulous at how thoroughly the Simpson case took over--and will again consume--American airwaves and brain waves.
“Remember--and this may be hard for a British reader to imagine,” Anne Applebaum wrote in the Spectator magazine, “that the O.J. Simpson story was, at various moments over the past six weeks, running on CNN 24 hours a day while leading all of the news programs and simultaneously appearing on the front pages of every newspaper and the front covers of every news magazine. This is not even to mention the dozens and dozens of ever-multiplying talk shows and television ‘magazine’ programs, each with its celebrity host and celebrity guests, each with its own angle, tabloid-trashy or upmarket-serious or caring-therapeutic.”
Tragedy as soap opera is more than some can stomach.
The Montreal Gazette’s Jack Todd called Simpson fans on the freeway “the warped and weird thousands.” Noting that USA Today had said the case “tarnished” Simpson’s image, Todd wrote, “If there’s anything more sickening than the crimes of which Simpson stands accused, it’s the reactions of the millions who just don’t get it.”
The case confirms the beliefs of many about America’s worst traits: It is a racist country addicted to violence and sensationalism. The Simpson trial is an extension of the Clarence Thomas hearings and the Los Angeles riots, of the Menendez brothers’ murder trial and the William Kennedy Smith and Lorena Bobbitt and Tonya Harding and. . . . It’s all one big media blur.
“To satisfy the spectacular nature of the market one no longer hesitates to show a manhunt live,” sniffed Paul Nahon in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. “There is no longer any limit. Neither to the sordid nor the cynical.”
Michio Ochi of the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun indicted America for racism.
“Time magazine printed a cover of O.J. Simpson that darkened his face so that he looked like a vicious criminal. It symbolized a malicious intent of white, mainstream people to pull this black murderer of his divorced Caucasian wife down from his ‘Hercules’ status and to throw him back into the slum from which he made the toughest effort to escape.”
And in the Independent, Kenan Malik wrote, “After Simpson’s arrest, the Los Angeles Police Department faced considerable criticism for having allowed him to escape in the first place. ‘If it had been any other black man,’ said a young African American angrily, ‘he would have been arrested, handcuffed and thrown in the slammer so quick he wouldn’t have known what hit him.’ He was articulating his anger about the LAPD’s racist attitudes toward ordinary blacks. White Americans have been making the same point--but for very different reasons. What they want to know is why Simpson was treated like a celebrity, when he is just a black man.”
The international media note that racism is both an agonizing issue for the American public and part of the defense’s strategy. The defense’s plan to impugn the integrity of the police officers who investigated the case will raise “bad cop” issues, as in the Rodney G. King case, and consequently, will force Americans to further examine what is wrong with themselves and their society.
“When (toddler) James Bulger was murdered by two children last year, Britain also descended into an orgy of self-examination. . . . But in the end, Britain did not put itself on trial,” Applebaum wrote in the Spectator.
“In America, however, the use of terms borrowed from psychoanalysis is so widespread--popularized by countless self-help books and talk show hosts with therapy training--that it no longer seems odd that the whole society should be held accountable for a single crime,” she wrote.
Adding that American political commentators sometimes refer to Yugoslavia as a “dysfunctional country,” she went on to say it is hardly surprising that a celebrity murder is seen “as an occasion for national soul-searching and an investigation of racism--the great national personality disorder--rather than as a time to evaluate the facts.”
Now the international media explain how the American trial will proceed, how the two sides will work the jury. As the defense tries to raise doubts about police integrity and competence, the prosecution will try to “wipe away the image of the nice guy who has worked his way up from the ghetto to the dream factory, and produce the one of a common murderer,” wrote Michael Schwelien in the German newspaper Die Zeit.
All of this will be played out as an American story on American television, the media note.
“This kind of television has elements of a brothel,” Schwelien wrote. “But a brothel with a separate room for self-righteousness. The viewer is allowed to moan ‘Terrible, terrible,’ while the juicy details of sex- and blood-crimes are put on the table.”
Times staff writers Tyler Marshall in Brussels, Scott Kraft in Paris and Craig Turner in Toronto contributed to this report. Times researchers Chiaki Kitada in Tokyo and Reane Oppl in Bonn also contributed.
* JURY SELECTION: Final panelists will fill out detailed questionnaires. B1