Remember Where You Were When…?

The evening of Friday, June 17, 1994, I was winding down from a hectic work week that was dominated by the criminal case involving former football star-turned TV and movie celebrity O.J. Simpson capped by his disappearance that morning. He had failed to surrender to police at his lawyer-brokered time of 11 a.m. on charges that he had murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and a man at her condo, Ronald Goldman.

My husband and I were making a quick trip to a nearby shopping mall and thinking about grabbing a bite to eat. As always, our car radio was tuned to an all-news station. En route came a report that a car in which Simpson might be riding had been spotted on a freeway and might be trying to flee. I turned up the radio.

More reports aired. The car, a white Ford Bronco, wasn’t exactly fleeing. It was proceeding along within the speed limit — with a huge phalanx of police vehicles tooling along behind — apparently heading north from Orange County. No attempt by law enforcement to stop or corral the Bronco. Bizarre.

More reports. It looked like Simpson might be holding a gun to his head. Gawkers were flocking to the anticipated route reported by the media and crowding freeway overpasses, screaming, cheering, waving signs. Signs? People actually had time to make signs before or while rushing to a freeway overpass near them?

Forget why we had gone to the mall, I needed to find the nearest TV set — like in an anchor store home furnishing department. There, we joined other store customers and and gawked along with them — and, it turned out, a media-estimated 95 million other Americans. Television stations and networks across the country interrupted their regular programming — which included an NBA championship basketball game and coverage of international soccer’s World Cup — to broadcast the “chase.”

The rest is history, or rather what the media reported as history.

Yesterday, director of NYCityNewsService at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and former New York Daily News city editor Jere Hester, told listeners of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation‘s Q with Jian GhomeshiWhy the O.J. Simpson Bronco car chase was a game-changer“.

Something Hester said stopped me short.

“All of a sudden,” Hester said, “we were seeing him in a far different light. … this was someone who had a better than stellar reputation in the entertainment and sports world for 20-plus years and we were seeing that image transform before us.”

That image. A media-made image, for sure.

What struck me was the irony of another media-made image and how Hester formed his opinions and conclusions, not as someone who actually covered the Simpson case, although he believes he did. But as a member of the television-viewing public.

Twenty years ago, instead of being in Los Angeles and attending court proceedings in person, Hester was sitting in his New York Daily News newsroom watching events on TV. Yet, listen to this delusion:

“I came at this from a unique vantage point. For the most part, I was watching this on television, so my vantage point was seeing this through the eyes of the public.”

That, I submit, is NOT a unique vantage point. That is the same vantage point 100 million-plus other people in the U.S. and countless more in other countries had. Nothing about sitting in a newspaper newsroom makes his vantage point any more unique than Joe Blow sitting in his living room — except, perhaps, having more people around him to chew what they were viewing with.

And that has been my point and the primary reason I wrote Anatomy of a Trial: Public Loss, Lessons Learned from The People vs. O.J. Simpson (University of Missouri Press, 2008).

What you see on TV is not the full or necessarily accurate picture, or complete or spin-free story.

Hester makes that point himself, not just in his comment about the media-made image of Simpson going into what quickly became known as that “slow-speed Bronco chase”, but in his observation about the courtroom and the proceedings during a brief visit he made to Los Angeles during the trial.

Someone who, through the media, we thought we knew.

Hester agreed that the fluff, such as Marcia Clark’s hairdos, overshadowed substance in “Simpson land.”

Although not indicting the media, he did say that being in the courtroom presented a different view than what he saw on TV.

“If you’ve ever had the experience of being at a taping of a television show … it was very much like that. You see that when you ever go through TV studio, it always looks bigger on TV than it does in person. The people look different.”

But the actual “show”? “I’m walking into what’s really kind of  an average-sized courtroom in the Los Angeles courthouse  and you’re seeing  these very familiar figures  and your first kind of instant recognition is the way that you would have when you pass a celebrity on the street and you do a double take.”

During proceedings, however, he realized the trial was not about entertainment “on any level, but that it was a search for justice.”

That said, he also realized that the “court of public opinion was going to have an effect in this case.”

And that’s where I part company with Hester. The court of public opinion had an effect on the aftermath of the case. But the trial itself, was the the prosecution’s to lose, which it did.

And that other media-made image? That of the trial judge, Lance Ito. That image fell victim to the “court of public opinion” along with what would have been a different judicial career.

Much of that is covered in Anatomy of a Trial, along with caveats and counsel for other jurists, courts and news organizations.





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