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Sean P. Means: O.J. Simpson case, 20 years ago, left its mark on media

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jun 13 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jun 13 2014 01:01 am

On June 13, 1994, the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were found outside a townhouse in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.

And the media and America’s pop culture lost their collective minds.

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Twenty years on, the murder trial of former football star O.J. Simpson can be viewed as a turning point in the way Americans — and, in particular, the media — look at crime, the justice system, race and celebrity.

Anyone paying attention to the news then — and even many who weren’t — can tell you the basics. O.J. Simpson was accused of stabbing his ex-wife and Goldman, a waiter at a nearby restaurant where Nicole Simpson had dined that evening, who was returning a pair of glasses that belonged to Nicole’s mother. Four days after the killings, O.J. Simpson was supposed to turn himself in to Los Angeles police, but instead took off.

TV took over at that point, as regular programming was interrupted on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN to show a white Ford Bronco, driven by Simpson’s pal Al Cowlings, being pursued by 20 police cars and the same number of TV helicopters. An estimated 95 million people watched the incident, which ended peacefully at Simpson’s house.

It was fascinating viewing, because nobody really knew what was happening, but we all knew it was something strange.

Was the fact that Simpson was fleeing an admission of guilt? A sign of mental instability? A "suicide-by-cop" about to play out?

Viewers didn’t know — and neither did the TV anchors covering the chase. That didn’t stop the anchors from filling the void with speculation, theories and outright bull-pucky.

Then there was the trial, which started the following January. It became the hot new TV series, a ratings bonanza for the fledgling Court TV (now TruTV) and CNN.

Like any new hit on TV, the Simpson trial created its own stars. Some were fleeting, like Simpson houseguest Kato Kaelin, who followed up with a string of desperate reality-show gigs.

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Others became the stuff of parody. On "The Tonight Show," a series of skits about the trial featured "The Dancing Itos," mocking the trial judge, Lance Ito. Simpson’s lead lawyer Johnnie Cochran’s boisterous courtroom persona inspired many imitators, notably the Jackie Chiles character on "Seinfeld."

The TV commentators proliferated. Greta Van Susteren and Jeffrey Toobin were brought on as "legal analysts" by CNN. Now Van Susteren hosts her own show on Fox News, and Toobin remains a CNN regular.

For one family, the media spotlight became an inheritance that continues today. One member of Simpson’s legal team, and an old friend, was Robert Kardashian. It was the first time that name made national headlines — but thanks to the media avarice of his ex-wife, Kris, and their kids, Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Rob Jr., not the last.

Other media moments called up the issues of racism in the case, even before Cochran played the so-called "race card" against white LAPD detectives at trial. Upon Simpson’s arrest, Time and Newsweek ran his booking photo on their covers — but Time darkened the photo, which some said made Simpson look more "menacing." (Time’s editors later apologized.)

The not-guilty verdict, delivered by a mostly black jury, brought out more discussion about racial differences in America. Twenty years ago, polls showed that 6 in 10 African-Americans believed Simpson was innocent — while the majority of whites thought he was guilty. A CNN poll released this week found the majority of African-Americans (53 percent) now think Simpson did it.

Simpson walked away from the courtroom in 1995 a free man, though under a cloud of suspicion that remains today. He lost a wrongful-death case, brought by Goldman’s parents, in civil court in 1997. He sits in a Nevada jail now, convicted of armed robbery after a 2007 incident involving his sports memorabilia. He was sentenced to a term of 9 to 33 years and is eligible for parole in 2017 — when he will be 70.

What the O.J. Simpson case taught America is that our media culture can turn anything — even the deaths of two people — into mass entertainment.

A real-life drama played out on freeways and courtrooms within a loud shout of Hollywood, and the media industry reacted by churning out content, creating new stars, imposing a narrative, mining it for comedy potential and feeding it all to a hungry public. We stuffed ourselves on it and have been going back for more ever since.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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