Coverage of the O.J. Simpson Trial in Media
How it works
On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were found stabbed to death outside Nicole’s home in Brentwood, Los Angeles. The main suspect was O.J. Simpson, former pro-football player turned television personality. Standing trial for 133 days, O.J. Simpson was acquitted of both murders and released. At the time, L.A. was still recuperating from the L.A. Riots two years prior as a result of the “not guilty” verdict from the Rodney King beating by the police.
A senseless beating captured on camera, the communities in LA believed that racial discrimination in the video was enough for the officer to be found guilty. In the years that followed, racial discrimination within LA was still present. When O.J.’s trial began, racial tensions were high because of the history in L.A. and the lack of trust in the L.A. police department. O.J. was a familiar face and a household name thanks to his evolving career. His post-football career allowed him to enter the entertainment side of television, picking up commercials and films. Simpson’s ability to stay relevant and in the spotlight fueled individual desire to watch and follow his trial. The 24-hour news cycle worked hard to turn the murder involving one of L.A.’s wealthiest football stars into a story of entertainment, rather than a serious trial. Individuals deliberately turned on the television to watch the trial unfold. The minute-by-minute televised coverage drastically increased ratings, making the trial into a pop culture event. The longer and more intense the trial became, the more of a star O.J, the jury and prosecutors became. The content was unlike anything viewers at home had ever seen. These televised events had individuals hooked on O.J. Thus, the televised coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial paired with his popularity and the instability of the Los Angeles Police department created a spectacle that inevitably turned hard news into entertainment for viewers at home and television programs for years to come.
As quickly as the investigators’ uncovered information, newspapers and journalists turned out media coverage. The clear discrimination that was involved in the Rodney King trial lead to an unreliable police force. The captured footage of Rodney King played all over the television was fascinating for people to watch. It was clear discrimination taking place in front of the public’s eyes.
From the beginning of the investigation in the O.J. Simpson trial, the LAPD worked aggressively to retrieve evidence and make connections that could link O.J. to the crime scene. However, the discreditable information released by the police department sources and reported by the media initiated a media frenzy that began to turn the O.J. Simpson trial into pure entertainment instead of a serious criminal case. For a police department that had already seen some tough years, they were not ready for another case that many felt centered around racial discrimination. Evidently, they were not ready and their instability and lack of professionalism was present in media coverage of the investigation and trial. This was seen in their inability to keep information within the department. A type of reporting “no Canadian or British media outlet would dare indulge in.” Instead of reporting fact driven statements, the journalist used assumptions by anonymous individuals. Reporting statements such as, “Sources inside the department say he is under investigation.” These claims never should have been reported in such a serious case, because it made the situation seem like a joke. The police are to blame for the level of unprofessionalism. However, journalism is to blame for conveying that to the public, thus no one could see O.J as more than a television personality.
The O.J. Simpson case was turning into a pop culture phenomena. The anonymous claims only fueled the audience’s desire to know more and to solve the crime with the police, “the trial had become the new soap opera, people were tuned in every day to gain more information….” Especially since O.J. was a household name, “this is the last guy I would expect to be involved in something like this” said Will McDonough from the Boston Globe. Individuals could relate to O.J. over their love of football and his presence on their television screen day in and day out. They were trying to figure out why their favorite football star was somehow involved in a murder case. People were connected to him; they wanted to stay connected. McDonough stated, “I hope he’s all right, and I pray that he’s not involved”. Individual connections impacted the way people perceived the media coverage. For one, they absorbed any information they could in hopes of trying to figure out what actually happened. Also, because of leaked accounts and the inside source information, it was entertaining for people to watch and listen. It captured attention. The leaked information gave people the feeling as if they knew what was going to happen before it actually did. So, when the time came for O.J. to actually be arrested, people were ready and eager to watch the scene that would unfold.
The media reported as if the LAPD were working hard to get O.J behind bars. However numerous accounts of leaked information and anonymous sources exhausted the idea that such reports could be taken whole-heartedly. The instability of the police department affected the quality of content media produced during the trails that it was entertaining for viewers, “the California media coverage of the O.J. Simpson affair has provided great juicy entertainment for the masses.” For viewers at home following the investigation, it was similar to that of the game Clue; put all the pieces together and you will find out who did it.
Evidently, when the Los Angeles Times release a column saying, “one source close to the case said, Simpson release was a temporary thing” because of journalistic authority the reader is going to take this as fact. The LAPD was presented as doing a very thorough investigation but with zero credibility and they addressed the media with zero authority. The main point the media talked about was the high ranking authorities assigned to the case. This enforced the idea that police were not just dealing with some average individual, but someone famous. The media supported the apparent hard work of the LAPD and tried to enforce that they were taking specific measures within the case assigning “a highly regarded prosecutor” to show the magnitude of this case and “prosecutors are seldom assigned to a case before an arrest has been made.” Because this case involved a famous pro-football player, movie star, and television show-personality, the case required more attention because of its grave importance. To the public, the media played both sides. They showed how diligently police were working, but also reporting solely based on leaked information. The instability of the LAPD created initial coverage that was not credible however people listened to the coverage because of the connection they had with O.J.
As journalists reported on any information they could get, local television stations were far too ready when it came time for O.J’s arrest. On top of the anticipation the world felt from the initial news coverage on police working diligently to build their case, viewers at home were thrilled to be watching this arrest that, “had all the elements of a megabudget action movie as a fleet of cop cars tailed Simpson’s white Bronco on the 405 Freeway while helicopters from seven LA stations hovered above, cameras on the roll.” Foreshadowed by leaked information, the day had finally arrived and the camera captured this astonishing scene, NBC deemed important enough to interrupt the 1994 NBA finals.” The idea that viewers at home could watch someone be arrested, especially someone that they felt as if they knew, was exciting. Howard Rosenberg from the Los Angeles Times said, “It was matchless and amazing, at once a wildly improbable scenario that critics of crime movies would find unbelievable and an addictive live television drama that you couldn’t pull away from.” The televised coverage coupled with the notion that O.J was a guilty man, an idea emphasized through the press, made it easier for the journalists to sensationalize the coverage. The gravity of the O.J Simpson case was not taken seriously. This should have been a “no comment” situation instead they leaked any information they could get their hands on to the public. The leaked information was a result of the lack of authority by the LAPD and the daily coverage of the trial fed into the audience’s desire to follow the case. As a result, O.J Simpson’s trial captured audiences attention and was a source of entertainment both in the newspapers and in television coverage.
The journalistic coverage of the O.J. Simpson case itself was already entertaining to watch so the comedic manner was very easy to covey within comedy shows. It did not take long for shows like Saturday Night Live to incorporate the trial into their programming. Only two weeks after the murders happened, SNL released their first segment featuring the trial. The show went on to exaggerate the stupidity of debate within the courtroom. For example, the defense goes on to order a pizza, “a perfect parody of the nitpicky infighting and petty disputes that would characterize the proceedings.” There was an obvious lack of professionalism within the criminal justice system, pinpointed in both journalism and the televised coverage. Shows themselves were able to incorporate the case into their shows by poking fun at O.J, the jury, and the O.J. defense team. To begin, a 1995 episode from Saturday Night Live showed O.J. using his fame to manipulate the jury, as they took a field trip to O.J.’s home. The viewer watches O.J. hand out gifts and throws a party for his guests which, “devolves into a wild kegger (which, based on accounts of the trail, is not all that far from the real defense team’s attempt to manipulate the jury members.” The sketch combined two real accounts, the first was that the jury, prosecutors, and judge who toured the crime scene and second O.J. did go on an episode of MTV Cribs showing people around his mansion. The ability for comedy to take real accounts and incorporate them into a show reinforced the journalistic coverage of how the trial became a source of information.
Following the trials, the LAPD needed to analyze and adjust how they had handled such a high profile case. Going forward, there were no changes to the justice system, however, “the legal pratfalls in the Simpson case helped modernize L.A. County’s’ criminal justice infrastructure and offered some pointed lessons for prosecutors, police, criminalists, and judges.” For the police officer, the handling of information initiated new procedures, District Attorney Steve Cooley said, “‘ It was a prosecution loss of biblical proportions, and our office used it as a case study of how to handle high-profile cases,”‘ For the future of the police force within Los Angeles, there was a clear understanding of how their unprofessionalism lead to what many would consider a loss in the case. However, if the LAPD were not as dysfunctional as they were during the trial, the outcome of it being a source of entertainment would not be the same.
Entertainment television’s ability to utilize the character’s within the trial and apply their traits in show episodes was easy due to the pop culture event that the trial turned into. Entertainment television began to focus on the individual around O.J, such as Brain Kato Kaelin who was a key witness in the actual trial. Kaelin was definitely not the right person to put on the stand to testify because there was no way people would take him seriously, “When Deputy District Attorney Marcia Clark asked him if he was nervous, he blurted out, “feeling great,” sparking laughter in the courtroom. He then said he was “a little” nervous”. He was already a character, in the 1995 Weekend Update episode, SNL honed in on the personality traits that easily made him laughable. During the actual testimony, Kaelin “displayed the colorful style that made him a minor celebrity in the case.” Kaelin was a freeloading actor in real life, his performance on the stand laid the foundation for an entertainment character to be made out of his image.
Like any good pop culture event, everyone or everything always comes into the spotlight again. For Kaelin, it was in 2015, 20 years after he “shot to fame during the O.J. Simpson trial”. He sat down with Barbara Walters, this time in a much cooler and collective manner. Now, because of the fame he got from the trial, Kaelin is living a great life. In the spotlight now he has the opportunity to say what he never said 20 years ago, ” when Nevada convicted him, it almost felt like, hey LA this is how you do a trial.” Reflecting on the trial those involved understood the spectacle that it was shaped into, years later they came forward to say what they could not because everyone was so engrossed in what journalism was reporting and televisions were producing.
In 2016, a miniseries, The People v.s. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was released perpetuating the idea that there was, ” unfinished business for America.” The miniseries centers around the details of the case that were overshadowed by the outrageous news coverage. Thus it evokes, ” the racial divide that shaped Mr. Simpson’s trial and erupted with his 1995 acquittal. Suggesting that years later the media coverage, both print and television, is still affecting individuals of certain minorities. The past television coverage of O.J, today has created a split because “your perception of the criminal justice system is much different depending on your skin color.” Sources examine the idea that this racial divide goes as far back as Rodney King and his involvement with the LAPD, “Los Angeles police department is no longer the overtly bigoted institution which turned LA into a racial cauldron and prompted a mostly African American jury to acquit Simpson of murder in 1995 in apparent payback for the Rodney King verdict.” The People v.s. O.J. Simpson looks not to tell the viewer if O.J. was actually guilty or not but instead focuses on facts such as the LAPD’s lack of competency and the racial divide that had been going on way before O.J. took the stand. Earl Ofari Hutchinson believes, “‘OJ will always, till the end of time, be a symbol not only of racial division and polarisation but of how the justice system deals with African Americans. He’s an eternal symbol.'” O.J. Simpson’s trial will always stand as a pop culture event that was covered by every media outlet because it was entertaining. For O.J., he will always be remembered as a controversial figured that evoked change within news and media coverage and the criminal justice system. Lastly, the individuals involved in the trail like the prosecutors and jury, they will be remembered by the mockery that they were made into on the television screen.
The O.J. Simpson trial went from what should have been a high profile criminal case to an entertainment spectacle. The instability of the Los Angeles Police Department partnered with O.J’s popularity turned hard news into an entertainment pop culture event. When the LAPD leaked anonymous sources, this created a sense of unprofessionalism to the press, which in return resulted in news coverage that stirred up the public and engaging them more and more with the trial. Reporting in such a way left it easy for entertainment to publicize such events on television. SNL wasted no time calling attention to the individuals involved in the case, again using the trial as a source of entertainment. As the miniseries, The People v.s. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story tried to step away from the specific people and focus on the facts of the case that were overlooked by the hysterical news coverage, they inevitably could not because the trial will always be seen as a source of entertainment. That is why a miniseries was made, to again entertain people with the trial. The O.J. Simpson case will always be remembered, watched, read and brought back to life by television. Where the true story will be lost within the hysteria of the initial coverage.