For those outraged by this century's most notorious perversion of justice, media condemnation has become the court of last appeal

By Gary Kamiya

Published November 26, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

boy, it sure was a good idea not to let O.J. Simpson take the stand in his criminal trial. After two days of testimony in a Santa Monica courtroom, the former NFL great with the slashing style has uttered so many obvious lies and contradictory statements that anyone who still believes in his innocence is operating in the realm of fairy tales, a world where Santa Claus and Superman wander the North Pole, pursued by extraterrestrial villains hired by the LAPD.
On the stand in Santa Monica, the smooth operator has simply denied everything, everything — claiming that the bruises on Nicole's face could have resulted from her "picking and cleaning her face" (yick!), denying that he ever beat her or that she was ever afraid of him, and claiming that he didn't get Paula Barbieri's "Dear John" phone message, even though records show he accessed his voice mail after she had left it. It was supremely unconvincing. If Simpson had decided to wear a big sandwich board bearing the inscription "I am a sociopathic egomaniacal wife-beating murderer who is in massive denial," he could hardly have communicated his point more effectively.
It was so inexplicable, not to say moronic, a performance — most authorities agree that people who have created a monstrous edifice of lies to hide their homicidal behavior should try to minimize further stretchers, particularly if evidence of their prevarications is readily at hand — that analysts have been left scratching their heads. CNN's Roger Cossack said, "I don't know why Simpson feels he has to deny this. But Bob Baker is not an idiot and I suspect there is an answer." A panel of defense attorneys convened for a post-testimony bloodletting on "Geraldo" were equally bemused: One of them said something to the effect that "Bob Baker must be getting a huge ulcer as he watches O.J. testify."
Well, maybe. It could be that O.J. is simply a world-class bozo whose self-regard is so great he is incapable of following a script that he had an entire year to rehearse. But there is also the prospect that Baker knew exactly what he was doing, that he decided that the bland, mistakes-were-made version of the Big Lie has been used so frequently and effectively by our leading public figures that it is now accepted everywhere and under all circumstances, like some super-duper Hertz credit card.
After all, why shouldn't the jury resemble the American electorate — prone to cognitive dissonance on a staggering scale? Remember Reagan's plaintive "They like me, but they don't believe me"? Most people thought The Great Communicator was lying about Iran-Contra, and he's some kind of national icon now. Besides, it worked for O.J. before. The last jury (which bore a striking resemblance to the august panel that tried the Jack of Hearts in "Alice in Wonderland") liked O.J. and believed him.
If Friday's performance was dreadful, Monday's was positively stupefying. In a bizarre tactic apparently gleaned from watching repeated reruns of "Hogan's Heroes," Simpson trotted out the discredited Sergeant Schulz defense, shrieking "I know nothing — nothing!" as Goldman family lawyer Daniel Petrocelli inquired about such minor matters as where he got all those cuts on his hands, where all that blood in his car came from and why he kept changing the story he told the police.
Reading about O.J. being mercilessly grilled affords some meager satisfaction, but hardly enough to be cathartic. For one thing, this trial is only about money. For another, Simpson may not even lose his loot: As ABC legal correspondent Peter Arenella noted on Friday's "Nightline," many people have speculated that Simpson has stashed his money in foreign bank accounts. And, finally, it's not televised. After enduring closeups of Simpson's sanctimonious countenance during the slow-motion nightmare that was the criminal trial (not to mention the visages of the execrable Barry Scheck, hideous Robert Shapiro and loathsome Johnnie Cochran), only actual film of Simpson being slashed to figurative ribbons on the stand can provide payback. Transcripts and descriptions just don't do it. (And neither do the weird, vaguely soap-opera-like daily re-enactments of court scenes on E! network, which are strictly for the hardcore.)
A finding for the plaintiff in this trial will provide some vindication, of course. But ever since this whole sordid saga began, and especially since Simpson's acquittal, I've been looking for that vindication — or just a reality check — in another place as well: the media. I scour TV, newspapers, magazines and radio, searching for the public condemnation the jury denied.
Why? Because an event like the acquittal of Simpson is so monstrous, so wounding to our necessary belief that justice will ultimately prevail — and perhaps more profoundly, that the world makes sense — that it creates a powerful desire both for revenge and for a kind of civic bond, a consensus, to place against the rupture. I suspect that many people, like me, have turned to the media for satisfaction. It is our Greek chorus, the only instrument in our society capable of expressing something like a public judgment. The media has become the last court of appeals, the final place where Simpson, the ultimate media creation, can be expelled from society.
At its basest, this impulse leads one to talk radio, where you can listen to Joe Schmoe screaming "He did it!" and feel better afterwards. At a more sophisticated level, it means searching through the rhetorical Rosetta Stone of the New York Times house style, breaking its code of neutrality in search of an underlying opinion, a tilt, a raised eyebrow imputing what everyone not blinded by paranoia, misplaced racial solidarity or just plain myopia knows. Does the Times hint, with a peculiar adjective in graf three, that Simpson is a liar? Did Ted Koppel cut off Johnnie Cochran? These are the minute semiotic investigations one is reduced to in search of a feeble and unsatisfying simulacrum of justice.
Until now, it has been a pretty fruitless quest. Most media people entertain about as much doubt that Simpson is a stone killer as that Hitler masterminded the Holocaust (the evidence for the two crimes is pretty much on a par), but during the criminal trial few mainstream journalists expressed their opinions, even covertly. A few mavericks and gunslingers dared to speak out: The New York Observer's Richard Brookhiser flat-out called Simpson a murderer after the verdict, and tabloid TV honcho Geraldo Rivera, displaying unheard-of passion, has been on a veritable one-man crusade to prove Simpson guilty.
But these are the exceptions. Most of the media defaulted back to the most timorous version of "objectivity," the mainstream journalistic philosophy which mandates that no position, no matter how obvious, can be overtly supported and that "experts" must always be trotted out to argue both sides of every issue.
Objectivity is supposed to be universally observed (and, in at least a rudimentary sense, it needs to be) but in fact journalists get around it all the time. Editors and writers have sneaky ways of slipping their opinions, or that of the organizations they work for, or — more insidiously — what they imagine to be the "mainstream American opinion," into putatively "objective" pieces. The choice of story angle, the placement in the paper or the broadcast, and above all the tone and rhetoric of a piece, can subtly and not-so-subtly convey opinions.
The American media is essentially centrist, and so it's not surprising that "consensus" is the one thing that trumps objectivity. If there had been national consensus about O.J., the media would have been considerably more polemical in its coverage. But confronted with a breach in consensus — in this case, the awkward and embarrassing fact that most blacks apparently thought O.J. was innocent, while most whites thought he was guilty — the media retreated to the strictest, safest version of "objectivity."
During the criminal trial, this led the media to become even more timorous and toothless than usual. As Jeffrey Toobin argues in his book on the Simpson trial, "The Run of His Life," the media handled the story with kid gloves in large part because of its racial implications. The undercurrents of the Simpson case were simply too much for a largely-white press corps (perhaps made excessively sensitive to such matters by their own "diversity" programs) to handle: They ended up treating the most absurd defense claims with exaggerated respect and nervously avoided drawing all-too-obvious conclusions.
All of which afforded scant consolation for anyone who was looking to the media for a reality check, if not imitation justice.
But there are signs that the worm is turning. The "soft" areas of the media, never subject to the same constraints that hem in dowagers like the Times, have had a field day. David Letterman, for example, has abandoned all restraint: a recent "Top 10 Ways O.J. Simpson is raising legal funds" featured such answers as "Teaming up with the folks at Butterball to sell 'Thanksgiving turkeys slaughtered by O.J. himself'" and "Freelancing for Dr. Kevorkian." Even ESPN has gotten into the act: On Sunday night's SportsCenter, wacky motormouth anchorman Keith Olberman commented that a running back was "more evasive than O.J. Simpson on the witness stand" and then — after noting that Barry Sanders had passed Simpson's career rushing yards — deadpanned "O.J. blames the LAPD for planting Sanders."
And even the mainstream press seems to be tilting away from its timorous hyper-objectivity. True, U.S.A. Today continues to be a repository of brain-dead objectivity, and the Times' impassive countenance has scarcely flickered (although today's edition carried the dry headline, "Simpson is Short of Answers in His Second Day on Stand"). But Associated Press reporter Michael Fleeman, in dispatches filed after O.J.'s testimony, practically trumpeted "he did it" in every sentence. And on Monday's "Nightline," legal correspondent Cynthia McFadden, prompted by Cokie Roberts, read a list of people who would have to be lying for Simpson to be telling the truth. Roberts had to interrupt her after the names went over a dozen.
It's hard to know if there has really been a shift away from hardcore objectivity, or if the media is just responding to the red meat offered by Simpson's testimony. But if there has been such a tilt, it may be due to the fact that racial passions have calmed somewhat. The televised black vs. white shouting matches outside the courtroom — on Friday, CNN rolled footage of a black O.J. supporter wearing a baseball hat that accused the CIA of selling crack in the ghetto — continue, but they seem more and more like a freak show and less like a metaphor for the nation's racial divide. Under these less-charged circumstances, more news organizations may have decided that hinting broadly that a wealthy black celebrity is in fact guilty does not violate "objectivity" or make it racist.
If that happens, it will hardly be sufficient punishment for O.J., and it certainly won't bring back Nicole Simpson or Ron Goldman. All it will do is provide some small relief for those of us for whom this case has been an open wound, some sense that society has spoken, and that some measure of symbolic justice, however small, has been achieved.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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