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Try as I did to enjoy a media-free vacation, the news has a way of slipping under whatever shield I devise. The big stories found me on a tiny island off Maine — Bush’s choice of Dick Cheney, the failure of the Mideast peace talks, the return of O.J.
Acquitted in September 1995 of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, O.J. Simpson was supposed to walk into the sunset with his children at his side, vowing all the while to scour the earth in search of his wife’s true killer.
But then came the civil trial (in which the Juice was ordered to pay $33 million to the families of Nicole and Goldman). And that little trip to Panama. And the British documentary with his imitation of the shower scene from “Psycho.” And the phone calls to the police in Florida. And the fight with Nicole’s sister, Denise, on Fox News. Not to mention the book and the video …
In the words of Dan Hicks, “How can I miss you when you won’t go away?”
The occasion of O.J.’s latest return to the public eye is, as you probably know by now, the launch of a Web site: AskOJ, where for only $9.95 you can ask Simpson questions, and maybe even have him answer. As sports fans are well aware, many athletes — even retired athletes — have home pages where you can query your hero. It’s doubtful that anyone ponying up $9.95 is going to ask O.J. about his days at USC, or the Buffalo Bills, or even his short stint with the San Francisco 49ers. (I missed the live chat on July 27, and the promised archive of the event was not working when I visited.)
The questions posed to Simpson by those who paid for the privilege of visiting his new site, were, like those posed by people interviewing him on television in the last week, of a more legal nature. But the tenor of his recent promotional responses has been simple and heartfelt.
The media did it!
From his visit with Katie Couric on the “Today” show July 25 to his appearance on Court TV’s “Crier Today” the following day, Simpson is still adamant in proclaiming his innocence, of course. He also insists he is the victim of a celebrity feeding frenzy.
“I hope I get more questions,” a defensive and occasionally incoherent Simpson told Catherine Crier, “so that I can give examples of how unfairly the media has reported this, and how inaccurately big people in the media — Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Larry King — undisputed, I mean they cannot dispute the stories I’m going to tell about what they did. One phone call would have corrected what they are reporting in public, and they just lied to the public.”
It would be tempting to greet this accusation with that old saw about the pot calling the kettle black — were it not for the incendiary racial implications. Pressed on the question of race and its role in the criminal trial by Crier, Simpson again accused the media of making this a black-white thing.
“I have a lot of white friends,” said the Juice. “I’m not a racist. Unfortunately, Hertz hired me, not Afro-Sheen, so you see me publicly more in a white environment because that’s who I was working for.”
The spectacle of Simpson — who in the pre-Michael Jordan days was probably America’s most visible African-American pitchman — blaming the companies that made him rich for putting him in a “white environment” was certainly odd. But so was the spectacle of Barbara Walters telling her audience on “The View” that she had disinvited the Juice from joining her and the gals on the couch.
Pot, meet kettle. No name-calling, please.
If anything, O.J.’s appearances last week were a pertinent reminder of the man’s media savvy — or what’s left of it. He parried with Couric wearing a rictal smile that she (no small smirker herself) could not dislodge. On Crier the next day he was hoarse and gravelly voiced (due, perhaps, to more bouts with the press) but he looked awful, too. Puffy and unfocused, Simpson looked like Dorian Gray in reverse: Somewhere a portrait must hang of him, pristine.
But beneath that flaccid exterior (a sort of Jabba-the-Hut in the making) a wily mind still ticks. During the civil trial, he told Crier, he had a distinct advantage over his previously incarcerated self. “I could see all the reports of the lawyers and the media and they all said [his testimony] was there and there was nothing of significance that came out of it,” he told her. And when asked to discuss those “ugly ass” Bruno Magli shoes — you know, the ones he never had which he was photographed wearing long before the murders — the Juice turned to the newsstand for example.
“The Bruno Magli shoes were totally a fraud and I think we’re gonna prove that in the not-too-distant future,” Simpson told Crier, reverting to his cryptic style of yore. “I can’t talk about it now but I think it will be proved, proven in the not-too-distant future. It’s like I saw Redbook the other day, and I saw Michelle Pfeiffer say, ‘Those aren’t my lips,’ and they weren’t, evidently. They can do just about anything.”
See? Michelle Pfeiffer’s lips (apparently doctored and added by some unscrupulous magazine) and those “ugly ass” shoes that appeared to be on Simpson’s feet are but two examples of what The Media can do when they want to distort the truth. Imagine the lies they’ve told us about the Kennedys!
It’s hard to gauge what appetite the general public will have for O.J.’s paranoid conspiracy theories — though that episode of “Crier Today” garnered a .5 rating (estimated 211,000 viewers), the show’s highest rating to date.
As the episode drew to a close, David Marshlack, president of Entertainment Networks Inc., sponsor of AskOJ.com, joined the Juice to promote and explain the site. (None of the money goes to Simpson, the two insisted; O.J. just wanted a venue to tell his tale. Even the sale of O.J. memorabilia would benefit the retailer — and a number of charities that seemed eager to disassociate themselves from the site.)
It was there that Crier issued the challenge — accepted, conditionally, by Simpson and Marshlack — to debate his old nemesis Mark Fuhrman in an event that will be simulcast on Court TV and AskOJ. Promoting the event, which should take place in the next week or two, Crier and Marshlack sounded like nothing more than a couple of competing promoters — Don King and Vince McMahon perhaps — hyping an event in which everybody wins.
Fuhrman himself has made something of an unwanted return to the public spotlight of late. His book on the Martha Moxley murder made him a regular commentator during the trial of Kennedy relation Michael Skakel, and he pops up on TV discussions of unsolved murder cases: Moxley, JonBenet and of course, Simpson.
But short of an actual duel in the sun, or at the very least a real-life “Smack Down” (complete with folding metal chairs), I can’t imagine anyone would have much of a stomach to watch the two adversaries harangue each other. Even as Crier and Marshlack promoted the event, Simpson cried out in protest.
“What am I gonna say to Mark that I haven’t already said?” he asked rhetorically. “What’s he gonna say to me that he hasn’t already said?”
For once the man was making sense.
Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.More Sean Elder.