The date was June 17, 1994 – An event that changed news and the way it was reported forever. The scene… a Southern California freeway, the 405 to be exact!
Every television station in the country honed in on the signal from the local news chopper following the infamous white Ford Bronco as Los Angles police vehicles pursued slowly behind. Inside the SUV were Al Cowlings and some guy named Orenthal James Simpson. Simpson had failed to show up at one of the police department precincts as agreed upon between his attorneys and investigators to inquire about the double murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. While there were over a thousand reporters who showed up for what they though would be Simpson turning himself in, now there were an estimated 95 million watching on television. This was “Cops” before there were cops. This was a live pursuit of a famous football player, movie star, sports announcer and rental car pitchman who a large portion of America recognized on sight and adored. He was suspected of killing his wife and her companion, a white woman no less. And word on the street was that he made what seemed like threats to kill himself during this slow chase.
And this my friends is in my opinion the event that changed the way the news is reported forever. The subsequent rumors, innuendos and gossip that followed leading up to the trial became headline news from LA to Boston, from Minnesota to Texas… the OJ trial was the talk of the nation. Names like Kato, Darden, Fuhrman, Garcetti, Ito, Clark, Cochran, and Dershowitz became household. And there was a demand to get the inside scoop on it so they added legal experts like Greta Van Susteren to the mix. She ended up with her own TV show and after the trial a show called Court TV was born. All because of this OJ event.
What I remember most was the verdict. It was broadcast all over radio and television. At the time I worked at a company where our whole operation depended on telephone lines being manned at all times. Each of us operators left our desk and gathered around a radio at the reception area and the boss didn’t utter a word. She was right there with us. When they read the not guilty verdicts the reaction of the White secretary said it all. She burst into tears on the spot sobbing as if Nicole were her sister. Most black folk including myself were not as convinced of Simpson’s guilt, especially in light of the way the police handled the evidence as well as the lying testimony of bigot Mark Furhman. Nevertheless the country was split straight down the middle. White folks were going Hebrew biblical tearing their clothes in sat-cloth and ashes. Black folks who honestly didn’t give a damn about OJ post his Buffalo Bills playing days, felt it was about time a black man wasn’t convicted just because he was accused even as white folks wanted his head passionately regardless of evidence. Opinions ran strong and feeling deeply expressed across offices nationwide. This took the sensationalism of the news media to a whole new level.
Initially we had investigative journalistic shows like Geraldo Rivera. He made the genre famous and paved the way for Hard Copy and from there we got a mild but now notorious blowhard Bill O’Reilly on Inside Edition. By then that Pandora’s Box had been slammed wide open as television producers figured that they could combine the news with the gossip. Stations like CNN and Fox News were popular, but the OJ trial put them over the top as viewers flocked their cable stations to see the latest speculation and opinions of so called experts. Local news cast figured they’d better get in on the mix less they be left out. I mean who wants to hear about local politics and the school board when Cochran was rhyming, “If it doesn’t fit you must acquit?” And if that wasn’t enough, once Princess Diana was killed in that car accident, it was a wrap! News and popular culture would be forever intertwined with mainstream media.
I believe this is the origin of and main reason we suffer from a news media that is so entertainment centered while the important issues get’s dilluted. Bleeding no longer leads as much as scandal sales.
So there you have it!
That’s my take. What’s yours?