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Today, a 24-hour news cycle that obsesses over every detail of a story is commonplace. But the spark began 20 years ago, with a car chase that captured America’s imagination.
The trial of O.J. Simpson was a celebrity media saga before the days of social media and reality television, and significantly influenced the media landscape.
NPR’s David Folkenflik talks to Here & Now’s Robin Young about how the O.J. Simpson trial changed cable television, the justice system and how Americans watch the news.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It was an amazing situation on that overpass there. There were people running around on top of there. I don't know how he's going to be able to drive through all of those people. All along Sunset Boulevard, there are people stopped as well, ahead of the chase. We can only assume he's going to his home on Rockingham in Brentwood.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: OK, Eric, that's...
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Twenty years ago today, former NFL running back and actor, O.J. Simpson, fled from Los Angeles police in a white Ford Bronco. And it seemed like the entire country watched.
He'd been charged in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. He was supposed to turn himself in that morning to authorities, but he never showed up. That night, 95 million people watched as CNN and all three networks interrupted programming to follow the L.A. slow-speed chase - sometimes split-screen with events like the NBA playoffs. It was bizarre.
The case that followed also riveted. And the way that media responded over the next 10 months would become the new normal. Here's a a quick sense from start to finish.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: You can probably believe this in our modern popular television culture - people are going to the freeway, parking their cars and waving at O.J., we're told, as they drive by.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: This is the preliminary hearing, day four, set to resume again after this lunch break, just about four minutes from now.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: You can put away the tea leaves. In just five hours, we will know whether the verdict will convict O.J. Simpson of murdering his wife, Nicole, and Ron Goldman, or set him free.
YOUNG: Of course, they set him free. And 20 years later, we're still asking the question, was this news or was it entertainment? How did it change how we view live events? How did it reflect race relations? NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, has been giving all of this some thought. He joins us now. Hi, David.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Robin.
YOUNG: And start with his car chase - 95 million people - that's how many tune into a Super Bowl. So try to describe it for those, maybe, too young to have seen it.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I remember it. I was a rookie reporter in North Carolina. I'm from Southern California. My best friend, Jeremy, calls me. The connection wasn't good. And I said what's going on? He says Dave, I'm calling you from a white Ford Bronco. And I said what do you mean? He's like, you're not watching? Turn on the TV. And he didn't even tell me a channel. I just turned it on and there - boom - it was. And O.J. was, you know, not driving that fast but driving through, you know, the freeway system - as convoluted and spaghetti-like as it is - of greater Los Angeles.
I've driven a lot in greater Los Angeles at slow speeds but not with, you know, a phalanx of squad cars escorting me gingerly to make sure that I don't go anywhere I shouldn't. You know, it was, as you heard in one of those - I think it was Tom Brokaw's - clips, you know, an incredible spectacle both captured by television and, in some ways, created by it. You had people at overpasses holding signs. My recollection was that one of them said go, juice, go, as though they were cheering somebody at the Rose Bowl parade.
And there was really a sense with these helicopters hovering like hummingbirds over what was happening that it was, you know, as I saw it, both a news event and an incredible spectacle fueled by the media attention. O.J. Simpson, as you said, both a former running back great in the NFL and some kind of actor as well in "Naked Gun" and other movie - but really, you know, a friendly face to America of pop-culture and of sport. And, you know, that saga couldn't be more interesting and more newsworthy.
YOUNG: But, David, I can hear twenty-somethings saying now - so? - because that's what we do know. Put it in context as to, you know, how often we had this kind of live coverage at that time.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, right - this was before World Wide Web was a consumer product. So you didn't have websites covering everything. CNN was the only 24-hour cable news channel. Court TV existed to cover legal issues and certainly paid a lot of attention to this. But, you know, CNN had done a really gangbuster business in covering the first Gulf War in 1991. This really, for a long time, for many weeks and months, replaced it - not just, of course, the chase, but the days that had led up to that chase, the suspicions that had mounted against Simpson and the trial that ensued some months later which itself lasted for the better part of a year.
It became both a soap opera and, in some ways, a graduate level seminar on how jurisprudence works, how the legal system works, how race is interpreted and a bunch of other subjects as well. And yet it was done at a time where you had news organizations having to make, in a sense, what felt like tabloid story selections even if they weren't using tabloid newspaper journalistic standards and presenting it.
YOUNG: Yeah. So this case led to, possibly, you know, tons of cable news channels in the sense of covering everything all the time and then the trial where, suddenly, everybody was a legal expert. Talk a little bit about how this case became a career changer for some media people.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, look, a lot of people, you know, held onto the story and went with it. People thought that they'd be - make their careers, and other people had their careers broken. If you think of the two lead prosecutors, Chris Darden, particularly, Marcia Clark - I think the sense was she was building herself up for either a greater career as a prosecutor in Los Angeles or as some sort of media personality. In fact, they never really prosecuted cases again, the two of them, when Simpson was found not guilty in that criminal trial.
Although, of course, it's worth pointing out, he was later found guilty in a civil trial suit that was filed by the families of the two people who had been killed. You know, it inspired, in some ways, a genre of coverage. It inspired, as I suggested earlier, harking back to an interest in certain kinds of legal cases and troubles of celebrities. Harvey Levin, who we now think of as the creator of TMZ - such a successful and controversial news franchise focusing on gossip and legal troubles around celebrities - he really burst out into national consciousness at that time. He was a local legal affairs reporter for an affiliate in Los Angeles.
If you think of - CNN created a show shortly after called "Burden Of Proof" involving Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren - now, herself, a primetime host for Fox News. She was a legal analyst for CNN at the time for a show that aired for more than six years.
So you know, there were people who really made a meal out of the Simpson case. Reporters, as well - I believe Linda Deutsch of the AP - the Associated Press - was - became somewhat nationally known for filing, on a daily basis, all these dispatches about what was happening in court.
FOLKENFLIK: And I think - sorry - I was just going to say, I think that the nature of it was really shifted by the fact that Judge Ito - Judge Lance Ito, who was supervising the case, allowed TV cameras into the courtroom there.
YOUNG: Right. Well, Simpson, himself, is now serving a 33 year prison sentence for those crimes he committed during a fight over his football memorabilia.
YOUNG: But the case and the verdict, when it came, also revealed a racial divide 'cause we not only watched the trial, we watched the reaction to the verdict and many African Americans celebrated.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, I think that part of the seminar that we were having amid trial was the notion that we were learning how imperfect the legal system was. You know, you had somebody like Fuhrman - I'm forgetting his first name at the moment...
YOUNG: Me too.
FOLKENFLIK: ...But who was - he was a police officer involved in investigating, and he seemed almost like a super-cop. And yet, over the course of time, it was revealed that he was - he had used racial epithets and was, perhaps, biased against blacks. You know, O.J. Simpson, of course, one of the most prominent African-Americans in the country - that affected it.
You had Time Magazine darken a photograph of O.J. Simpson in a cover picture to depict the stakes in the trial. And many people charged that was an attempt to blacken him and make him look more guilty than perhaps his mug shot already suggested.
And I watched the verdict in a restaurant bar in Baltimore - a city, you know, where there's a very heavy African American population. I can tell you, people in that bar and in the city of Baltimore reacted differently dependent on race. I think whites were very surprised. I think many blacks celebrated - not because they wanted somebody they believed to be guilty to get off, but rather, that they saw an affirmation of the notion that the legal system is often stacked against them.
YOUNG: NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik. On this day, 20 years ago, in the O.J. Simpson car chase. And the other name that many remember - Mark Fuhrman.
FOLKENFLIK: Mark Fuhrman.
YOUNG: David, thanks so much.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.