1995: The year the future began
The media ballyhoo over the FX miniseries about the O.J. Simpson murder saga of 1994-95 has been accompanied by a variety of misconceptions and exaggerated claims about the case and it effects.
The miniseries premiered February 2 and retraces the case in 10 episodes — from the savage slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in June 1994 to the controversial acquittal of O.J. Simpson in October 1995.
The series, MTV News declared, “is about the birth of reality television and the larger-than-life personalities involved in making the O.J. trial one of America’s biggest media circuses.” The case certainly was a media circus at times, but reality TV was born long before Simpson went on trial.
It has been around since at least the late-1970s program The Gong Show. Or since An American Family, a 12-part PBS series that debuted in 1973 and chronicled the life of a family in southern California.
An even earlier candidate for the birth of reality TV was Candid Camera, the comedy show that took to the air in 1948 after years on radio as Candid Microphone.
It’s been claimed as well that the intensely covered Simpson trial inaugurated the 24-hour news cycle. The Daily Beast asserted, for example:
“To say that the trial of O.J. Simpson—the ‘Trial of the Century’—gave birth to the 24-hour news cycle would be, well, the understatement of the century.”
The trial had no such effect and the 24-hour news cycle was no phenomenon of the mid-1990s. Testimony to that can be seen in the late 1890s, when William Randolph Hearst’s daily New York Journal published numerous extra editions in the run-up to and during the Spanish-American War.
Not only that, but wire service journalism long has been defined by the pressure of unrelenting deadlines, elements of a non-stop news cycle. In 1957, journalist Joe Alex Morris brought out a book about the first 50 years of the old United Press news service. The book’s title? A Deadline Every Minute.
The notion that the Simpson case brought dramatic changes to the media landscape has kicked around for while. In 2014, at the 20th anniversary of the low-speed car chase across southern California freeways that ended with Simpson’s arrest, a columnist for USAToday declared:
“The national preoccupation with Orenthal James Simpson ushered in an entirely new media environment.”
The columnist, Rem Reider, pointed to such supposed consequences as “saturation coverage of a single story,” celebrity journalism, reality TV, and a “fascination with criminal trials, the more lurid the better.”
Scant evidence was presented in support of those claims, the most far-fetched of which was “saturation coverage of a single story.” Television has long demonstrated, and in indulged, a taste for “saturation coverage.” Take, for example, the televised Watergate hearings in spring and summer of 1973.
Or the wall-to-wall coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and related developments in 1963.
Or the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.
Reider’s claim that the Simpson case prompted a “fascination with criminal trials, the more lurid the better,” likewise is questionable.
Criminal trials, lurid and otherwise, have long been a fascination — since perhaps the time of the Mayflower. “Sensational coverage of crime has always had a place in American popular culture, from the earliest forms of colonial popular literature,” David Schmid pointed out in his 2005 book, Natural Born Celebrities.
The criminal proceedings against Simpson in 1995 were often, if expansively, called the “Trial of the Century.” The phrase has found frequent use since the FX miniseries began airing.
But as I note in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, research by one of Simpson’s lawyers, Gerald Uelmen, reported finding at least 32 cases since 1901 that had been described by the news media as a “trial of the century.”
They included the cases of Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901; Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted in 1935 of the kidnap-murder of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were convicted of espionage in 1951. “Interesting courtroom dramas such as the Simpson spectacle have always generated keen public interest,” the American Journalism Review pointed out in December 1995.
Such fascination clearly antedated the Simpson case.
In any case, the proceedings against Simpson probably are best thought of more modestly as the “Trial of the 1990s.”
It also has been suggested that the Simpson case inspired the long-running TV series, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. A writer for Mashable recently pointed to such a linkage, noting the prominence given DNA evidence at the Simpson trial. He wrote:
“Is it any wonder, then, that only a few years after the trial, uber-Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer — who’d been enamored by a script written by former forensic investigator Anthony Zuiker — launched a fresh reinvention of the standard TV police procedural on CBS[?]”
It’s probably be more accurate to say, as I do in 1995, that the Simpson case and its focus on genetic evidence anticipated the CSI genre.
The most enduring legacy of the trial, I write in 1995, was to introduce the promise and benefits of genetic evidence to mainstream American culture.
“Through the Simpson case,” I note, “the American public gained a measure of familiarity with forensic DNA testing, which was to deepen in the years after 1995.”
The trial, I write, “was hardly the first in which complex genetic evidence figured prominently. But it was the first widely followed, high-profile criminal trial in the United States in which evidence about DNA — deoxyribonucleic acid, the complex and distinctive genetic material found in blood, hair, saliva, semen, skin tissue, and elsewhere — was a crucial component. At the Simpson trial, DNA testing was on display as never before.”
The trial, then, was the starting point for broad popular awareness about the uses, misuses, and decisiveness of forensic DNA.
Simpson’s defense lawyers at trial challenged not the science behind the DNA evidence but the sloppy manner in which that evidence had been collected, handled, and processed by criminalists for the Los Angeles Police Department.
By the close of the trial, Simpson’s defense had so thoroughly impugned the DNA evidence that it was “too suspect and unreliable to support a conviction,” I write in 1995.
Simpson’s guilt in the two murders was all but certain. But his acquittal became an inevitability.
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