25 Years Ago Today O.J. Simpson Murdered Two People. Our Media and Politics Have Never Been the Same.


F. Lee Bailey huddles with O.J. Simpson

Twenty-five years ago tonight, O.J. Simpson, one of the most famous and beloved athletes in American history, went over to his ex-wife’s Brentwood townhouse and slaughtered her and a male friend who was an innocent bystander, leaving their nearly bloodless bodies for his two small children to possibly find the next morning. The impact of this shocking event changed forever the way the news media functions, and has possibly even greatly impacted our political history.

The Simpson saga was really the first massive entertainment story, disguised as hard news, of the television era. There had been huge stories like it in American history (the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, for instance) where newspapers had become totally obsessed with a popular but not really that significant narrative because it was great for business. But until the O.J. Simpson murders, television news had largely restrained itself from such behavior.

Part of why this happened, as is usually the case, was a function of timing. In 1994, cable television was becoming a major force and media fragmentation had put ratings and economic pressure on a medium which, until just before then, had been, due to its enormous profit margins and virtual monopoly over the audience, largely immune from such concerns.

Before O.J., there had been several stories which would, in retrospect, be dry runs for the mania which would ensue over a black football legend brutally murdering his gorgeous white ex-wife Nicole and her handsome model friend Ron Goldman. But nothing which ever came before it, or since, has ever compared to the insane level of media attention given to the bizarre, fascinating, and infuriating chain of events which would follow, all on live television.

While it may sound like I am claiming that the media was wrong to play up the melodrama nearly as much as they did, that would be at least somewhat hypocritical because I was as enthralled by the coverage as anyone else in the nation. However, I do blame the media for paving the way for Simpson’s outrageous acquittal, and for setting all sorts of bad precedents for which we are still paying today.

In general, after the initial insanity of the infamous Bronco chase finally died down, the news media made a choice, consciously or subconsciously, to pretend that Simpson might actually be innocent, under the guise of journalistic fairness, so that they could milk this golden goose as much as possible. After all, if they treated Simpson as being as clearly guilty as he really was, and the defense tactics and arguments as obviously bogus as they were, then much of the drama and mystery, vital for ratings large enough to sustain a year-long mini-series, would eventually dissipate.

Simpson’s defense fed off of this false equivalency the media created by treating both sides of the debate as somehow remotely similar in terms of credibility. They were effectively enabled by the media in their dastardly race-baiting tactics and, critically, a fear of alienating black audience members allowed Simpson’s defense to gain far too much traction within the very community from which the majority of the jurors would come.

Essentially, the prosecution would say 2+2=4 (maybe 5 on a bad day), the defense would counter that really 2+2=100, and the news media would basically say, “Gee, it looks like 2+2 must add up to something around 50.” In this nutty environment, it was actually quite easy from dumb people to think that reasonable doubt had been created.

Since Simpson’s absurd acquittal (which was the moment in my life that I for sure realized that there is no real justice in this world, and that the truth doesn’t really always, or even usually, win out), the news media has been desperately searching, largely in vain, for a sequel of some sort. Thanks to the Simpson case, the line between was is news and what is entertainment, has been forever obliterated, and celebrity has been officially designated as the official coin of the media realm.

Since the Simpson injustice, it is honestly difficult to recall a major media sensation where justice wasn’t at least partly stunted by our badly broken news media’s role in it. Oddly, one of the areas where the Simpson case may have had its most dramatic impact is in our presidential politics.

For instance, the media used the same “false equivalency” tactic during the 2016 Republican primaries where they pretended that Donald Trump was a legitimate candidate (much like they acted like Simpson might not be guilty) because he was just so darn good for business. Then in the general election, out of a desire to not appear biased and to keep what they thought at the time was fake drama going, they consistently acted like there was somehow a balance between the weaknesses of the two candidates (in this analogy Hillary Clinton is the rather inept, but still ultimately wronged, Marcia Clark).

I also believe that if Bill Clinton had not seen Simpson extricate himself from a situation which appeared totally hopeless, by fighting back hard — and dirty — while using the media’s vulnerabilities to his advantage, he would have been far more likely to resign, as any other previous president would have, after the revelation of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Similarly, I have written previously that President Trump took several pages out of the media playbook of his old friend O.J. in his effort to defeat, by hook or by crook, the Russia investigation.

So, in a very real sense, you could make a pretty good argument that if Simpson had never gone over to his ex-wife’s place twenty-five years ago tonight, we probably would never have had a President Trump, and, if we somehow still did, there would have been a far greater chance of getting rid of him before the next election.

John Ziegler is a senior columnist for Mediaite. He hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud  or email him at johnz@mediaite.com

[Image via Getty]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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