By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Moments after President Bush announced Michael Mukasey as his nominee for attorney general yesterday, the cable networks jilted him for an old flame.
O.J. was back. O.J. was proclaiming his innocence. O.J. was doing the perp walk. The Juice was under arrest, and television was magically transported back to the mid-1990s, when all of America argued about every facet of the double-murder case.
"This promises to be the biggest fall series of the new season," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "The double homicide was a tragedy of mythological proportions. The sequel seems to have come back as a sitcom."
In a heartbeat, a small battalion of media types descended on Las Vegas, where O.J. Simpson was charged with six felony counts Sunday after an alleged hotel-room robbery that he described as reclaiming sports souvenirs that were rightfully his.
"It's the story that just doesn't go away," Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, who has interviewed Simpson several times, said by phone from Las Vegas. Van Susteren was part of a corps of little-known lawyers who rode the murder case to television fame.
"This is a routine criminal case in many ways," she said yesterday, calling Simpson's latest legal scrape "certainly disheartening." The murder charges should play no role in this investigation, Van Susteren said, even though "99.9 percent think he's guilty" of killing his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994.
There was, however, a racial split. A 2004 poll by NBC News found that 87 percent of whites, but only 29 percent of African Americans, believed Simpson was guilty of murder.
In the media encampment outside the Regional Justice Center in Nevada's largest city, dozens of journalists, with camera crews and satellite trucks in tow, staked out their turf yesterday under a baking desert sun. Lawn chairs were pulled up around card tables stocked with bottled water, sunblock and Triscuits. The atmosphere quickly took on the air of a reunion.
"O.J. Three!" CBS radio correspondent Steve Futterman cried when he spotted NBC reporter George Lewis standing on the courthouse steps. Both men had covered Simpson's criminal and civil trials.
Futterman held up three fingers. Lewis waved back with the same sign.
"I've been hearing from all the old crowd," Lewis said.
"It's like ESPN Classic out here," Futterman replied.
The most heavily covered robbery case in television history unfolded on the airwaves throughout the day. Fred Goldman, Ron's father, called in to "Good Morning America" and "Today." Attorneys and legal pundits -- Roy Black, MSNBC's Dan Abrams, CNN's Jeffrey Toobin -- offered instant analysis.
At a news conference outside the courthouse, a designated "media judge," Nancy Oesterle, surveyed the scene from behind sunglasses and ruled it a "media frenzy." She explained the procedures surrounding the arraignment, which was postponed until Wednesday.
Fox provided the greatest volume of coverage, putting pairs of dueling lawyers through their paces. Former prosecutor Monica Lindstrom said Simpson sounded "threatening" and "intimidating" on an audiotape of the incident, while defense lawyer Royce Russell countered: "How can you steal something that is already yours?"
By midafternoon, Fox was running an on-air banner saying, "O.J.: Mentally Ill or Just Arrogant?"
In many ways, Simpson's latest brush with the law is merely the manifestation of a media culture obsessed with celebrity and crime -- a culture that the former football player inadvertently helped inaugurate as news outlets went haywire after the killings. It is hard to overstate the degree to which his trials plunged the country into a racially charged maelstrom that set the tone for the subsequent media fixations with the likes of Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway. Once television grasped the ratings gold in soap-opera investigations and prosecutions, even unknown victims, if they were white and attractive, could be transformed into celebrities.
All of the principals in the 1990s Simpson circus -- Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Lance Ito, Robert Shapiro, Kato Kaelin, Mark Fuhrman -- became at least mini-celebrities. (Fuhrman was back on Fox yesterday, while Clark, now a correspondent for "Entertainment Tonight," said on the show's Web site that "they might actually nail him this time.") People argued over the low-speed Bronco chase, the glove that didn't seem to fit, the apparently bumbling prosecution, the judge's loss of control as lawyers and witnesses played to the cameras. A made-to-order tabloid tale, with a trial televised by CNN (then the only general news channel on cable), became daily fodder for major newspapers and evening newscasts. In perhaps the most surreal moment, the 1997 civil verdict against Simpson shared split-screen billing with President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address.
Now, however, the line between "legitimate" and sensational news has long since been erased. Even the stuffiest news outlets cover the antics of Paris and Britney, featured on a "Girls Gone Wild" Newsweek cover. Unlike in 1994, there are three cable news networks, thousands of online news sites and millions of blogs to stoke any story. Over the weekend, it was the gossip site TMZ.com that obtained the expletive-filled audiotape of the confrontation between Simpson's group and sports memorabilia dealer Alfred Beardsley. TMZ also obtained an exclusive interview with Beardsley, who says he was robbed at gunpoint.
Little wonder, then, that the Simpson arrest made not just the front page of yesterday's New York Post ("O.J. IN A CAN") but The Washington Post's as well.
But will O.J. Redux remain boffo at the box office?
"He's such a '90s phenomenon," said Julia Allison, editor at large for Star magazine, who was in high school during the murder trial. "If you look at who we're covering now, it's all young, sexy girls. The media are assuming they'll get the ratings with Simpson that they used to get in the '90s, and I wonder if they will."
But there is another element driving the story, in Allison's view: "No one likes O.J. Simpson, except apparently for the posse of ne'er-do-wells that follows him around."
Thompson, the Syracuse professor, sees the story line as one of unfinished business.
The Simpson murder case "was this big, stinking deal, and never had its final act," he said. "The civil trial didn't provide a sense of closure. If you listen to the coverage, there's almost this undisguised glee that he could be looking at 100 years in prison."
Staff writer Sonya Geis contributed to this report from Las Vegas. Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program "Reliable Sources."