The media made a “big deal” of the O.J. Simpson case in less time than it used to take Simpson to run the length of a football field. The case became not just a media circus but a cultural event or, in the words of Frank Rich, a columnist for the New York Times, an event that “hijacked our culture.”
And not just “our” (i.e. American) culture.
A men’s store in Barbados had a special sale on “Johnnie Cochran suits,” and a guru at an ashram in India asked the wife of actor Michael York to “tell me about O.J.,” according to Dominick Dunne, who covered the trial for Vanity Fair and is writing a book about the case.
The Simpson case drew worldwide media attention through CNN and through the London-based Reuters news service and other international and foreign news services and TV stations. News organizations from more than a dozen foreign countries sent reporters to cover the trial. As the Washington Post reported early this year, “The case is debated at dinner tables in Amman and Beirut, broadcast live in Britain, analyzed in magazine spreads in Germany, bannered across the front pages of Israeli newspapers and sneered at in France.”
Eugene Roberts, managing editor of the New York Times, was traveling in Asia last summer and found that “people who don’t even understand the [English] language were watching it on TV and having it explained to them.”
When Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, visited the United States, Dunne said she “wanted to know about O.J.” Dunne also said that when Benazir Bhutto, the prime minister of Pakistan, came to Los Angeles last spring and was asked “whom she would like to meet at dinner at Jimmy’s, the fashionable Beverly Hills restaurant,” she named Marcia Clark and Robert L. Shapiro. President Clinton said last year that when Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia, came to the United States, his first comment after stepping off the plane was, “Do you think O.J. did it?”
Media and public attention were the most pronounced, of course, in the United States, where daily live television broadcasts of the trial sent ratings skyrocketing for CNN, Court TV and E! Entertainment Television--and sent ratings plummeting for daytime soap operas. There were many weeks during the trial when every one of the nation’s 15 highest-rated programs on basic cable networks were segments of the trial telecast by CNN. Over the course of the trial, CNN ratings posted a fivefold increase. Circulation for the supermarket tabloid Star jumped 10%.
The trial was also broadcast live, from start to finish, on several local television and all-news radio stations throughout the country. On many computer services, Simpson “chat boards” were second only to sex / dating forums in volume of messages.
Day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, for more than a year, the Simpson case received enormous attention on newscasts in other cities and in the pages of respected daily newspapers and newsmagazines--not to mention publications ranging from the National Enquirer to the New Yorker.
Even the most vacuous characters in the Simpson melodrama had their 14 1/2 minutes of fame. Brian (Kato) Kaelin was the subject of a cover story in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar. He was featured in a six-page fashion spread in GQ. He got a book contract and a nightclub act.
More than 30 books have already been published on the Simpson case, half a dozen of which have sold more than half a million copies each. So many more are planned, including one by the staff of the Los Angeles Times, that bookstores may soon have to create a special Simpson section.
Media coverage of the case has been so exhaustive that a small newspaper in Carrollton, Ga., received nationwide attention when it announced early this year that it would publish no more Simpson stories until the jury had concluded its deliberations. New management lifted the ban in mid-August, but the paper didn’t publish its first Page 1 Simpson story until the jury reached its verdict.
When the verdicts were announced last week, the nation stood still for 10 minutes. More than 100 million Americans were watching on television. Congressional hearings were rescheduled. So was the daily State Department briefing. Airline flights were delayed. Long-distance calls dropped almost 60%. Stock trading plummeted.
It was a fitting ending to a process that had held the nation in thrall for 16 months.
According to the Cambridge Human Resources Group in Chicago, the nation’s work force had been so distracted by the Simpson case--talking around the water cooler or photocopying machine, sneaking looks at a television set, listening to the radio--that employers collectively lost an estimated $40 billion in productivity during the course of the case.
Throughout the country, people who had little, if any, previous familiarity with the patois of the courtroom suddenly began peppering their everyday conversation with words like objection and sidebar , hearsay and cumulative .
In Coconut Creek, Fla., according to Associated Press, a service station operator who installed small television monitors on his gas pumps discovered that people would pump a little more gas so they could watch a little more of the trial.
Out on the high seas, on a three-day cruise exclusively for Simpson case buffs, one homemaker spoke of hiring household help for the first time in her life so she could spend her time watching the trial; another woman said she had fired her housekeeper because she was “embarrassed to be seen ‘doing nothing but O.J.’ ”
Many members of the public feel similarly embarrassed and conflicted by their Simpson obsession. They weren’t paying attention to the case, they said. No one was paying attention to the case, just as no one voted for Richard Nixon.
A Los Angeles Times poll published the day that opening arguments in the trial began in January found that while almost 60% of the populace said they were already “sick to death” of the case, almost half of them said they were closely following developments in the story nonetheless.
“People seem to vacillate between indignation and fascination,” said the New York Times’ Roberts. Indeed, many Simpson reporters say they have been amused by the number of people who told them they were not interested in the case, or were fed up with it, and then made comments so filled with obscure details that it was obvious they had been following it even more closely than the reporters had been.
Diane Dimond of “Hard Copy” was trying on shoes in a Westside department store several weeks ago when she looked up and suddenly found herself “surrounded by a gaggle of women” who had recognized her from her Simpson coverage. “We want you to know we’re sick of it,” they told her.
Then, she said, “several of them launched into what . . . [Simpson’s] mother should have said [on the witness stand] and which color dresses she should have worn” and a recitation of other Simpson arcana and minutiae.
Some journalists are as embarrassed and as ambivalent as their readers and viewers about their commitment to the Simpson case. “Do we hate it or do we hate the fact that we don’t hate it that much?” asks Aaron Brown of ABC News.
Jeffrey Toobin, a former federal prosecutor who covered the case for the New Yorker and is writing a book on it, concedes that “by any realistic standard of what’s important in the world . . . there has been too much coverage. But journalism in the real world is as much about what’s interesting as it is [about] what’s important, and this trial is awfully damn interesting.”
Just what’s so interesting about the Simpson case? Why has it transfixed so many Americans for so long, often seemingly against their will (or at least against their better judgment)?
The fixation began with the nationally televised, low-speed chase of Simpson’s white Bronco five days after the murders.
Ninety-five million people watched that chase, not knowing how it would end. Suicide? Arrest? Escape? Violent confrontation? That shared adventure clearly gave many of them a vested interest, a sense of participation, of being on the inside of a national drama-cum-trauma in the making. And in this particular drama, virtually everyone felt he “knew” the central player.
Simpson had been in their living rooms on and off for more than 25 years, first as a Heisman Trophy-winning college football player for USC, then as a record-breaking running back for the Buffalo Bills and finally as a smiling commercial pitchman for Hertz and as an actor in various movies and television shows.
Even to people who weren’t football fans, he was “O.J.” Friendly. Familiar. Charismatic. Approachable. He was, in what came to be a cliche that only the descendants of Aaron Burr might legitimately object to, the most famous American in history to be accused of murder.
The Bronco chase was “the defining moment,” said Andrea Ford, one of a team of reporters who covered the case for The Times. “It locked people into this common emotional experience.”
But did that mean the media had to cover it so heavily? For 16 months? Shouldn’t the responsible media cover stories that people need to know, rather than just giving them what they want to know?
As Meg Greenfield argued in a Newsweek column on the eve of the Simpson trial last year, “a gripping human story” like the Simpson case does not require “redeeming social value” to warrant either media or public interest. Much of the political and economic reportage that passes for “serious news,” Greenfield said, is actually “speculative, transitory and more earnest than important, while much of what constitutes the frowned-upon preoccupation of readers and viewers--the startling crimes and trials, the passions that wreck lives and destroy families and other institutions--goes to ancient, even primal concerns.”
“According to Genesis,” Greenfield wrote, “when the good Lord put us on this Earth, just about the first two things that happened were a sex scandal and a murder. Great minds ever after have turned to these subjects, meditated on them, explored them. . . . There is a reason, and it is not simply some base or squalid instinct, that draws people to these tales.”
Nevertheless, many critics blame the media for force-feeding Simpson stories to the public, stimulating an appetite for the “squalid” that they could then cite to justify their massive coverage. Once the media began their heavy coverage, they found themselves locked into another exercise in self-justification; they had to continue the coverage to legitimize the expenditure they had already made.
Reporters covering the story had their own investment in sustaining public interest in it. “We’ve become experts in this subject,” said Jessica Seigel of the Chicago Tribune, “and I think there was a point where just the very fact of our expertise gave you an incentive to keep covering [it] and have this area of your expertise continue to be a matter of the public interest.”
Rick Feldman, general manager of KCOP Channel 13, which devoted less time to the Simpson case than any other commercial TV station in town, calls Simpson coverage “hysterical,” and he asks, “Is the trial of O.J. Simpson the single biggest, [most] newsworthy story in the last decade? Why would so much money, time, energy, people and resources be thrown at a story that obviously does not really and truly affect peoples’ lives?”
There are several answers to that question, apart from the natural journalistic (and human) interest in celebrity and tragedy.
Steven Brill, president and chief executive officer of the Courtroom Television Network, the parent company of Court TV, thinks the mystery factor is important. Whodunit? Will he/they get caught? Will he/they get away it?
“People are fascinated by trials because they don’t know what the result will be,” he says. “Except for sports, everything on TV is scripted. With trials, you never know what will happen.”
Put in its simplest terms, however, the Simpson story combines the sensational and the substantive, the voyeuristic and the visceral. It presses every hot button. It’s a Bayeux Tapestry of contemporary American culture.
“For better or worse, [it] cuts across everything that matters in this country,” said Stryker McGuire of Newsweek.
Or, as Dunne put it in Vanity Fair last February:
“The Simpson case is like a great trash novel come to life, a mammoth fireworks display of interracial marriage, love, lust, lies, hate, fame, wealth, beauty, obsession, spousal abuse, stalking, brokenhearted children, the bloodiest of bloody knife-slashing homicides and all the justice that money can buy.”
Other journalists have referred to the Simpson saga as “a national, real-life, cross-channel soap opera,” “Othello come to life,” “a [Theodore] Dreiser novel for the ‘90s,” “a Greek tragedy,” “a game show,” “the ultimate murder mystery” and “the ultimate reality-TV show.”
“If somebody sat down to come up with a grand plot outline for a new prime-time soap opera and they came up with this story . . . a studio executive would have said, ‘It’s too far out, too unbelievable,’ ” Craig Hume, news director of KTLA Channel 5, said in an interview.
And that was before the Mark Fuhrman tapes made police racism the most incendiary issue in the trial; before Fuhrman invoked the 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination and refused to answer the question “Did you plant or manufacture any evidence in this case”; before the involvement of Judge Lance A. Ito’s wife threatened to force Ito to withdraw from the trial and evoked comparisons to the abdication of the British throne by a love-stricken King Edward VIII; before defense attorneys called two former Mafia musclemen-turned-government-informants to the witness stand so they could challenge the testimony of one of the key LAPD detectives involved in the search of Simpson’s home hours after the murders.
Many critics argue that the invocation of serious issues like race, domestic abuse and inequities in the criminal justice system to justify the extensive Simpson coverage are transparent attempts to rationalize pandering to the emotions of viewers and readers.
“There are people in the media who unnecessarily ascribe to themselves weightier motives,” said Peter Jennings, anchor for ABC’s “World News Tonight.” “I’ve done that in my time. . . . I think . . . there were times when, in our self-consciousness about being dragged along by this drama--I do think the O.J. trial had us by the throat for a long time--we would invoke higher meaning.” Thus, when a reporter from the Los Angeles Times asked Landon Y. Jones, the managing editor of People magazine, about People’s Feb. 20. cover story, which featured a photograph of Nicole Brown Simpson beneath the words: “Why Nobody Helped Nicole,” he said it wasn’t really a Simpson story. It was “basically about spousal abuse, with an O.J. peg,” he said. But with the exception of one general paragraph about “domestic abuse among the wealthy and prominent,” the story was entirely about Nicole Brown Simpson as a longtime “victim of domestic abuse”; even the one “general” paragraph managed to mention her twice.
In the early weeks of the Simpson case, eight months before that People cover story, the New Yorker editorialized that the most striking feature of the obsession with the case was an “endless search for portent and meaning.” Under the title “Don’t Mean Diddly,” the New Yorker lamented what it called “the stately unfolding, in column after column and special after network special, of the belief that what we had here was essentially a text , as full of hidden allusions and telling ironies and larger meanings as a passage from [John] Donne.”
At almost exactly the same time, another John Dunne--John Gregory Dunne--was writing in the New York Review of Books of “the frantic search to find some larger meaning that would explain the crime. The story demanded a moral,” he wrote.
The story got a moral:
“Nothing succeeds like excess.”
Ever since the Bronco chase, some journalists (and many in the public) have complained that the Simpson case has been “vastly overcovered . . . ridiculously overcovered” and that “much of the coverage has been bad and a good deal of it’s been terrible,” as Dan Rather, the anchor for CBS “Evening News” put it in an interview. Rather compares the initial rush to cover the Simpson case to a hurricane, in which “the tide was so high, so powerful, so quick, that anybody who argued that the story was being overplayed [in its initial stages] got swept right away.”
The stage had been set for that in recent years, Rather said, when station owners and operators began scheduling tabloid TV shows in prime, early evening hours. That created “an undertow that is awfully hard for anybody to resist.” As a result, he said, while the Simpson story is “a great story,” and it would be “irresponsible” not to cover it, the air time and the newspaper space given to the trial is “completely, totally, grotesquely out of proportion.”
According to Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts have devoted more air time to the Simpson case in the last 40 weeks than they have given to Bosnia and the Oklahoma City bombing combined.
A Hearst Broadcasting poll last month asked 800 viewers, “Which celebrity or newsmaker would you like to hear less about on TV news?” Sixty-two percent named Simpson. Next on the “overcovered” list came President Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and singer Michael Jackson, all tied for second--at 3.5% each.
The Washington Post said “the worst sins of American journalism seem to be on display in the Simpson saga.”
And that was just three weeks after the murders.
Rather and his ABC counterpart, Jennings, say the battle for ratings has been responsible for much of this wretched excess.
The Simpson story was seen as “a very effective commercial device by a lot of broadcasters and newspapers--but broadcasters in particular--to improve their circulation” and ratings, Jennings said. “The media, in general, exploited it . . . force-fed it to the public for a long, long time.”
That may have been inevitable.
“The ratings argument for Simpson is strong,” Rather said. “In every newsroom in the country--and that includes ours--there’s somebody, usually several somebodies, who say, ‘You know, Dan, you can love the Balkans story all you want . . . and you can say it’s of great, lasting historical significance . . . and you can argue all you want that it oughta lead the broadcast, but I’m gonna tell you, in a tight ratings fight, O.J. spikes it up there and you better keep that in mind.”
This argument is especially pervasive, and especially persuasive, in local television.
“The average local station news director is a guy with his back to the wall, his shirttail on fire, the bill collector at the door and a guy with a straight razor right at his throat,” Rather said. “If his ratings don’t get up, he may be out of a job in three months, six months, nine months. So when somebody says, ‘Listen, O.J. gets the ratings,’ even if his better sense or his conscience tells him to go with something else as the lead [story], he’s gonna go long and strong with [Simpson].”
Another explanation for the voluminous coverage of the Simpson case is that it took place in a media capital like Los Angeles. Many news organizations already had reporters and resources in place here--and a sexy, interracial murder story involving a famous football star-turned-movie star and television pitchman plays right into the prevailing stereotypes about the glamorous, the tragic and the bizarre in Hollywood.
Dunne’s Vanity Fair accounts of the Simpson trial, which appeared under the rubric “Letter From Los Angeles,” frequently included references to his encounters with or ruminations about various celebrities encountered at parties, fancy restaurants and funerals. (“I left court 15 minutes early on July 11 so that I could get to Eva Gabor’s funeral on time.”)
Not only did E! Entertainment Television cover the trial live, but it did so complete with appearances by comedians and celebrity gossip columnists and interviews with an astrologer, a dog psychologist, a numerologist, a dream analyst and a hypnotherapist, among more conventional legal experts.
The Hollywood factor in the trial was compounded by the daily attendance of two celebrity authors, Dunne and Joe McGinniss, and by the periodic courtroom appearances of assorted other celebrities: actors James Woods and Richard Dreyfuss, former baseball star Steve Garvey, playwright Anna Deavere Smith, media personalities Barbara Walters, Larry King, Diane Sawyer, Jimmy Breslin and Geraldo Rivera.
Shirley Perlman, who covered the Simpson case for Newsday, the Long Island, N.Y., newspaper, thought it was typical of the Los Angeles culture that when Rivera showed up in Judge Ito’s courtroom, “there was a big fuss and he got into Ito’s chambers.
“When Geraldo showed up on Long Island for the Joey Buttafuoco trial,” Perlman said, “he strolled up to the courtroom door ahead of the other reporters in line [and] one of the deputies tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, bub, back of the line.’ ”