To Don Hewitt, the trial of O.J. Simpson, in all its tawdry, celebrity-driven detail, was the end of an era.
Hewitt, the creator of CBS’s premier news show, 60 Minutes, realized that the obsession for ratings trumped the dignity of news gathering and presentation during the trial. He protested during the trial that the cameras in the courtroom had turned the entire judicial proceeding into “an entertainment special.” “Letting cameras in can turn a courtroom into a movie set,” Hewitt wrote in a June 1995 piece for the Los Angeles Daily News.
And the case still had three months to go, ending with a not-guilty adjudication that set off a public celebration that rivaled that of a sports team’s championship victory.
The sensational coverage of the O.J. Simpson case drove a stake into the heart of civilized journalism, melding gossipy and unreliable stories with the heretofore higher standards of the establishment press.
Hewitt’s ire, though was directed at the trial itself. The public has forever been compelled by courtroom drama both fact and fiction, from Perry Mason to the gavel-to-gavel coverage of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1961, which was the first proceeding to be nationally televised in its entirety.
By 1994, the nation was awash in news outlets of varying integrity, and the competition between broadcast and print was never greater. Combined with the explosion of interest in celebrity and the rich and famous in general, a case that intersected fame and murder created the perfect storm. Starting with the car chase of O.J.’s white Bronco on June 17, 1994, five days after the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found knifed to death outside Nicole’s condominium, the episode was destined to be a foretoken.
The Simpson case was a “harbinger of an entirely different media landscape — an event that preoccupies everyone full-time for months on end,” Mark Crispin Miller, a media professor at New York University, told the Washington Post in a look back at the case in 2014. “Fifty years ago, what you would’ve turned away from as outrageous, you turn to as kind of normal and interesting. And then you can’t do without it.”
The satellite trucks lined up outside O.J.’s house at 360 Rockingham in Brentwood were a roll call of any media outlet with a budget. The pack moved to the downtown Los Angeles courthouse for the legal maneuvers. Meantime, reporters and wannabes fanned out across the nation, seeking exclusives. The mix of the more sensationalistic media such as Hard Copy and the National Enquirer, which would pay sources for interviews, and the establishment outlets, which at that time refused to do so on ethical grounds, created a competitive landscape that would blur over time. Today, some of the most above-board broadcast media outlets pay for interviews that will drive ratings and, in some cases, readers.
During the O.J case, the California Assembly saw fit to pass a bill limiting the ability of witnesses and jurors to profit from a crime. The sole protestor of that measure? The ACLU.
The O.J. case and its many tentacles converted news to entertainment. No longer did the facts of the case have the soul-tugging heartbreak of a loss of life. It was on TV, just like any number of scripted crime shows. Perhaps most crucially, the O.J. trial cemented the notion that lurid works for media. Scandalous circumstances dashed with celebrity makes front pages and often leads the broadcast. If the defendant or accused is not already a celebrity, it doesn’t take long for the media to make he or she into an infamous version of one – see Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias.
“So many of the trends that now engulf us had their roots in The Chase and the ensuing Trial of the Century,” Rem Rieder, media columnist for USA Today wrote in a column a couple of years ago. “Saturation coverage of a single story; celebrity journalism; reality TV; the fascination with criminal trials, the more lurid the better … there’s no doubt [O.J’s] improbable scenario had an outsize and long-lingering impact on the worlds of media and entertainment. Not necessarily for the better, of course, but enormous nonetheless.”
Main photo: KTLA [YouTube screenshot]; inset: O.J. Simpson [By derivative work: Everyme (talk) Gerald Johnson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]