A look back, 20 years after the events that led to the "Trial of the Century"

Still Chasing OJ: The Simpson Effect on Modern Media

Twenty years ago, the Simpson murders and the ex-athlete's slow-speed flight from justice set the modern celebrity culture into high gear.

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, Jun 16, 2014  |  Updated 10:09 PM PDT
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    The "real" killer who savagely stabbed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman 20 years ago Thursday might never be identified with 100 percent certainty.

    But one thing is for sure: the Los Angeles slayings and O.J. Simpson's subsequent slow-speed flight from justice kicked the modern celebrity culture into high gear.

    The Simpson murders, which arrived during the Internet's infancy, are likely an abstraction to digital natives too young to remember the events of June 12, 1994, and the 16-month national obsession that ended (or at least paused) with the disgraced gridiron great's acquittal on murder charges. But the case, which went viral a decade before the YouTube era began, blazed a bloody path for our current multi-platform, around-the-clock celebrity news and entertainment mania.

    The Simpson saga got people chattering – helping fuel the rise of talk radio in the 1990s and presaging the Twitter instant-commentary-driven ethos. On different levels, the sad story also helped shape the current state of cable news and spawn Reality TV.

    Long before CNN’s fixation on the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, Simpson’s trial marked the first major, sustained instance of the network and other channels devoting outsized time and resources to a spectacle that was undeniably compelling – but not, beyond the tragedy of two lives lost, a world-shaping event.

    The Simpson trial also played like a soap opera-ish Reality TV show, and introduced bit players like Kato Kaelin and Faye Resnick, both of whom eventually rode the D-list to television long after the verdict (Kaelin on “Gimme My Reality Show!” and Resnick on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”).

    But perhaps most significantly, the Simpson tale marked a turning point in which fame and infamy melded into one.

    That duality is embodied in Simpson, who went from being one of the undisputed good guys of celebrity life to, at best, an abusive husband and ex-husband whose private failings belied his public persona.

    It’s all too easy now to forget the football prowess of an athlete once known affectionately as ”The Juice,” who charged into the spotlight – first as a Heisman Trophy-winning running back for USC and later as the NFL’s rushing record-breaker for the Buffalo Bills. Simpson’s heroics between the hash marks and considerable off-the-field charm launched him to multi-platform stardom, as a broadcaster for NBC and pitchman for Hertz (“The superstar in rent-a-car”). Even if he wasn’t much of an actor, Simpson proved seemingly confident enough in his solid public image to make us laugh in the goofily hilarious “Naked Gun” movies.

    His impeccable all-around reputation was shaken with the murders and forever shattered five days later when Simpson took off toward Mexico in a 1993 white Ford Bronco with his friend A.C. Cowlings behind the wheel. The LAPD followed slowly as a transfixed nation watched – and listened. “My name is A.C.,” Cowlings declared by phone. “You know who I am, goddamn it!"

    If we didn’t, we surely soon would know all about Simpson’s former classmate and teammate – along with a cast of characters that quickly emerged in the murder case.

    For some, the Simpson killings were a gripping whodunit. For others, the slayings were more like an episode of “Columbo” where the audience knows who did it, but likes watching the detective put the pieces together. Only in this case, Columbo was a cop named Mark Fuhrman, whose past racist rantings surfaced during the trial, changing everything.

    Fuhrman reported finding a telltale bloody leather glove outside Simpson’s estate, matching one discovered at the crime scene. The Aris gloves were among a slew of brand-name evidence: the white Ford Bronco, Bruno Magli shoes, a key Louis Vuitton garment bag. The fancy accouterments, along with accounts of an array of high-flying friends, painted a portrait of Simpson’s Hollywood lifestyle, a picture that wouldn’t be out of place on a “Real Housewives” series.

    Just like a reality show, fluff too often overshadowed substance in Simpson-land: Prosecutor Marcia Clark’s changing hairstyles were scrutinized nearly as closely as her legal strategy. The trial spurred satires, most notably Jay Leno’s recurring “Dancing Itos” bit, which mocked the judge at the center of the circus. The trial even generated a TV friendly catchphrase, courtesy of Simpson “Dream Team” lead lawyer Johnnie Cochran: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

    For those of us who got to watch, even briefly, from the seats reserved for the press, being in the courtroom at times felt like being in a TV studio at the taping of a familiar show. But looking into the eyes of the weary jury or the families of the victims – a 35-year-old mother of two and a 25-year-old waiter who dreamed of opening his own restaurant – proved stark reminders that the trial was about justice, not entertainment.

    Months of court proceedings, if nothing else, gave the nation a crash course in the then-developing field of DNA evidence – and almost certainly helped breed the “CSI” genre of TV police procedurals. The Simpson case also eventually birthed another genre of TV – and the Internet: TMZ, which was started by Harvey Levin, who distinguished himself with his coverage of the murders for KCBS TV in Los Angeles.

    Simpson indirectly got us keeping up with the Kardashians, too: Family patriarch Robert Kardashian, was a Dream Team lawyer and perhaps Simpson’s most loyal friend. Kardashian might have taken some secrets (like what happened to the contents of that Louis Vuitton garment bag?) to the grave with him in 2003, fours years before the leak of his daughter Kim’s sex tape unleashed her and her family’s dubious celebrity.

    These days, Simpson appears all but friendless nearly six years into a 33-year prison sentence for robbery and kidnapping. Perhaps fittingly, Simpson made himself a victim of his own mutated celebrity: The conviction stems from dispute over some memorabilia he claims was stolen from him.

    Simpson, 66, could die behind bars, though he comes up for parole in 2017 – which will no doubt spark media interest, much like the attention generated by the 20th anniversary of the murders of two innocent people.

    Even all these years later, we’re still chasing O.J.

     

    Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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