By William Booth and Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 18, 2006
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 17 -- An angry wave of criticism swept through the publishing and broadcast worlds Friday over the coming Fox television interview tied to the promotion of a book by O.J. Simpson, in which he describes how he would have murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman -- if he'd done it.
The two-part, two-hour TV interview is scheduled to be aired on the Fox network Nov. 27 and 29 and was conducted by hard-charging and controversial publisher Judith Regan. The show will run before the Nov. 30 release date of Simpson's pseudo-confessional tome, "If I Did It," a book published by ReganBooks, a division of HarperCollins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.
The outrage that has been brewing all week seemed to boil over in recent days as members of the public, television station executives and fellow publishers criticized the book and the taped interview.
Geoff Shandler, editor in chief of Little, Brown, said yesterday, "It's so outrageous and flamboyant and audacious that part of you almost laughs while the other part of you wants to puke."
It was just one example of the kind of fire that Regan has drawn, and that has had some wondering if the envelope-pushing publisher had finally pushed too far.
On Thursday, Regan issued a rambling, eight-page statement in which she said she was motivated not by notoriety or money but by a kind of ersatz revenge and desire to have Simpson confess his crimes (which he reportedly is careful not to do). Regan also said she was compelled by her own history of domestic abuse -- "like Nicole Brown, I believed with all my heart," she said, "and then got punched in the face. Literally."
Media companies that own Fox stations are mulling this weekend whether to direct their stations to run or to preempt the Simpson interview, scheduled to air on the final Monday and Wednesday of the November sweeps ratings period, when ratings are closely watched and future ad rates are tabulated based on those numbers.
On Friday, at least two broadcasters directed their Fox-affiliated stations to preempt the Simpson broadcasts. One of them, California-based Pappas Telecasting Co., owns Fox stations in Fresno, Calif.; Sioux City, Iowa; and Omaha and Lincoln, Neb.
"Our company feels very strongly that there is no beneficial interest to the airing of this program except to O.J. Simpson, and we have no desire to benefit O.J. Simpson," said Pappas's Mike Angellos. He added that his station had been deluged with complaints from the public.
The other broadcaster, LIN TV Corp., owns Fox-affiliated stations in Norfolk; Providence, R.I.; Mobile, Ala.; and Toledo.
"After careful consideration regarding the nature of the show, as well as the feedback we received from the viewers of Northeast Wisconsin, we determined that this programming was not serving the local public interest," WLUK-TV General Manager Jay Zollar said on the station's Web site yesterday.
(Washington's Fox station, WTTG, Channel 5, is owned and operated by the network.)
A Fox spokesman contacted Friday declined to comment regarding the special.
Simpson is no stranger to public outrage. But it appears that much of the condemnation was directed at Fox and Regan, with questions about who will ultimately profit from the deaths of two people whose throats were slashed in Brentwood, Calif., on the night of June 12, 1994.
Regan, 53, has long been a source of gossip, envy and disdain among her colleagues and competitors. She got her start in publishing as a reporter for the National Enquirer, and is now an industry powerhouse.
"Who else has the combination of nerve, foresight and soullessness to publish a book by O.J. Simpson," Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly, wrote in an online editorial.
"Judith Regan is a very smart and very savvy publisher," Nelson said later in an interview. "But this is just different. This is just . . . " She searched for a word. "This is just really awful."
Publishing companies routinely print books that people find in bad taste, but Regan pushes the envelope -- with profitable results. Her catalogue for ReganBooks, in which a sexy image of the publisher herself sometimes graces the cover, details graphic adult novels and other pulp, such as the memoirs of porn star Jenna Jameson, alongside serious novels by writers such as Jess Walter, who was a finalist for this year's National Book Award for fiction.
The left has decried Regan's political books, but she publishes on both sides of the aisle -- offering "Herding Cats" by Trent Lott, the Republican senator from Mississippi, and "The Case for Hillary," from Democratic Party stalwart Susan Estrich.
The cover of Simpson's book features a picture of the former National Football League star. The portion of the title "I Did It" is in blood-red ink and the word "If" is in white. As of Friday evening, the book was ranked No. 22 on Amazon's bestseller list, though it will not be released until the end of the month. Amazon users tagged the product with the words "shameful," "disgusting," "murderer" and "pathetic."
Regan did not return phone calls on Friday, nor did her publicist. HarperCollins would not comment on the book. In her statement, Regan said she secured the book deal after being approached by a "third party" representing Simpson, whom she did not reveal. "What I do know is I didn't pay him. I contracted through a third party who owns the rights, and I was told the money would go to his children. That much I could live with," Regan said. "What I wanted was closure, not money."
The National Enquirer reported that Regan paid $3.5 million for the Simpson book. In so-called trial of the century, Simpson was found not guilty in criminal court; but he was found responsible for the deaths in a civil trial and was ordered to pay the Brown and Goldman families $33.5 million, only a fraction of which has been paid.
Simpson lives in Florida, where his home is protected from seizure, and he receives a pension from the NFL worth about $400,000 a year.
Regan said she wanted to do the TV interview, which she characterizes as "a confession," herself. Because he was acquitted in court, Simpson cannot be tried again for the same crimes.
"I had never met him and never spoken with him until the day I interviewed him. And I was ready," Regan said. "The men who lied and cheated and beat me -- they were all there in the room. And the people who denied it, they were there, too. And though it might sound a little strange, Nicole and Ron were in my heart. And for them, I wanted him to confess his sins, to do penance and to amend his life. Amen."
Regan further described herself as a victim when she said the media "have all but called for my death for publishing his book and for interviewing him," something she called a double standard.
Regan continued, "A death, I might add, not called for when Katie Couric interviewed him; not called for when Barbara Walters had an exclusive with the Menendez brothers, who killed their parents in cold blood . . . not called for when '60 Minutes' interviewed Timothy McVeigh, who murdered hundreds in Oklahoma City."
She characterized the Simpson trial, for better or worse, as "a seminal moment in American history," as it was a perfect tabloid mystery double murder, with its crosscurrents of violence, celebrity, racism, wealth, police corruption and the media.
However accurate that may be, families of the victims were furious.
Nicole Simpson's sister, Denise Brown, who chairs a foundation to fight domestic violence, said in a statement: "It's unfortunate that Simpson has decided to reawaken a nightmare that we . . . worked so hard to move beyond. We hope Ms. Regan takes full accountability for promoting the wrongdoing of criminals and leveraging this forum and the actions of Simpson to commercialize abuse."
On Friday, a number of Fox station managers were wondering what to do with the Simpson special.
"I think everybody thought Fox was beyond this, beyond those days of 'When Animals Attack' and all that kind of stuff," said a disgusted general manager of a top 50 Fox station who did not want to be named.
The GM said he would bet that as soon as one big station-owning company rejects the Simpson show, "other owners will follow."
Among the more creative ways of dealing with a public relations disaster, a Fox station in Seattle has promised that if it airs the interview, it will not sell any local ads. Instead it will help tape public service announcements for local organizations that aid victims of domestic abuse, which will run in place of local ads.
Staff writer Bob Thompson contributed to this report.