Riding shotgun

Five years ago Thursday, a white Bronco rolled onto an L.A. freeway -- and ran over the barriers between the media and everybody else.

Published June 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If I had to thank or blame someone for my becoming a media critic, I suppose it would have to be Mr. Higgins. That, anyway, was the imaginative pseudonym employed by a gentleman who called Peter Jennings during a certain live ABC special report five years ago Thursday. Mr. Higgins purported to have knowledge about a certain man inside a certain automobile, knowledge that Jennings and you and I lacked, that we were all achingly watching a video feed for, that Jennings and his producers would, understandably, have loved to be the first ones to air.

O.J. Simpson, Mr. Higgins reported, was slumped down in his Bronco in the driveway of his home; we couldn't see him, from our helicopter-cam vantage point, but Mr. Higgins said he could. Was he still alive? Did he really have a gun? Was he pointing it at anyone? "I see O.J.," Mr. Higgins told Jennings. "He looks scared." Then he announced, "Baba Booey to y'all!" and cut out.

"Baba Booey," we know now, is a Howard Stern catch phrase, and the call was a hoax. And with it, that anonymous pinhead became one of the great faceless figures of my internal historical chronology: contemporary media's equivalent of the itchy trigger finger at the battle of Lexington or the unknown Chinese civilian who stared down the tanks at Tiananmen Square. Peter Jennings was not the first news anchor to be Baba-Booeyed. But in that moment, when one Stern soldier pantsed the ABC anchor on national television, in the middle of the defining media episode of the decade, the balance of power in America changed.

It was a dumb, unoriginal and arguably racist prank (the caller was using what the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz charitably described as "an obviously fake ghetto accent"). It was significant, in fact, precisely because it was so stupid, so risible from the first syllable. Because it was so obvious. Somebody should have known better, I'm sure you were thinking, if you watched it. Except somebody didn't.

The call summed up, for better and worse, the media environment that would come after it and crystallized much of what had come before. If it was the moment that I became a media critic, I don't mean that in any momentous, epiphanic sense. It was also was the moment that caller became a media critic. It was the moment you did. "We are at moments like that," Jennings would later good-humoredly say, "reduced to roughly the same level as that of the audience." But the media, this time around, did not get back up.

Media critics do not generally use "O.J." as a shorthand for anything good. On our eternally downward-trending graphs, "post-O.J." means "after everything was shot to hell" -- after, that is, the news degenerated into a nightly cavalcade of arguments and shock news. The news-chopper mania, the "World's Greatest Police Chases," the selling of stories to the tabloids.

I don't think that's particularly true, or particularly useful: All that stuff was manifest before the murders and would have continued with or without Brentwood's controversial resident (or, for that matter, Brentwood's next controversial resident). That "post-O.J." mentality results from a wrongheaded, patrician assumption that the Simpson case was an overblown trifle played up for ratings. It was played up for ratings, of course -- there's no denying the Dancing Itos -- but just as the trial convinced many people that the Los Angeles Police Department had framed a guilty man, it also showed that a story could be both trumped up and truly important.

People may have been interested in the case because O.J. was a celebrity (a relatively faded one by 1994, though we tend to forget that now), but they became involved in it because it captured real and important issues. There was race, of course -- a subject so successfully ignored this decade that even the Los Angeles riot couldn't make it a campaign issue -- but also class, money and celebrity, and, entwined with all of them, power. The trial became a national checkup on the state of social mobility in America -- a national conversation, if an uncivil one, more comprehensive than any the Clinton administration has tried to arouse. What people realized about the case, and why it was far more significant than the media's tut-tutters recognize, was that the important thing would be not so much whether Simpson was found guilty as why. (Appropriately for our era of relative truth, we got two answers to the first question and several to the second.)

We wouldn't have had that experience in earlier years, when news and cultural decisions were driven from the top down, made by Olympian professionals who called the shots, often with great wisdom but also with a general belief that important news was made in cities like Washington and New York by men in suits: that it was a great thing for democracy if citizens stayed glued to, say, the Kefauver hearings, but that it was somehow an equally disgraceful thing if they spent a year and a half following the minutiae of a criminal trial -- the same stuff that civics teachers struggle to keep eighth-graders awake for. If you've spent your entire life thinking of your profession as a giant ziggurat with the White House press room at its apex, you cling longer to the old-fashioned notion that things like voting and legislation have the greatest effect on the way people live. The public recognized that the problems of two people -- Ron and Nicole -- told a much larger story, whereas the elected representatives of millions didn't mean a hill of beans in this crazy world. (Earnest media attention notwithstanding, for instance, the government was just then, unsurprisingly, bungling national health care.)

By the time Al Cowlings pulled that Bronco onto the freeway, the public was driving the media. Our big public explainers had lost their absolute command of our consciousness. Competition, from outlets like cable TV, was one reason, the Cold War vacuum another: There was no more great overarching national narrative to prioritize the news, and nothing forcing the public to stick with the great explainers if it didn't like their choices. Therefore, the audience didn't exclusively receive its culture from the same three networks anymore, and they, in turn, didn't always understand the audience's language anymore. You can attribute much of what we've seen in the media this decade -- talk radio, call-in shows, chat rooms, instant polls -- to ratings and immediate gratification, but it's also the recognition that one had to start listening to the audience, and even involving them, in order to thrive.

That's what was so poignant about Jennings' being flatfooted by that caller, apparently not immediately understanding that "Baba Booey" meant he'd just been had. In O.J.'s America, you didn't need to be a teenager to have your own confounding subculture anymore. Mr. Higgins had his Howard Stern subcult and was shoving it in ABC News' face: "You think you know something I don't? Well, here's something you don't know!" (That's part of the basic appeal of Stern, who's always defined himself through his conflicts with media authorities, from big broadcast companies to the FCC.) And that moment of boggled disconnect presaged the next year's, when trial-watchers in the media saw the jury announce a quick verdict and concluded, "Well, they must have found him guilty! The jury had its own alien subculture, where having evidence planted in your house is easily as believable as a hunk of lab equipment determining a man's guilt.

Even in the country of Andrew Jackson, we tend to think that institutions are lessened when they open themselves up to the public; hence the implicit hierarchy in Jennings' line about being "reduced" to the audience's level. In past breaking news events, the elites were there to put the rest of us in our place: Walter Cronkite, accused by a caller -- unaware she was speaking to Cronkite himself -- of crying "crocodile tears" after JFK's assassination, responded, "Madam, this is Walter Cronkite, and you are a goddamn idiot." Or they would put underlings in their place: There was ABC's Frank Reynolds, after being fed the erroneous line that James Brady was killed in the Reagan assassination attempt, barking, "Let's get it nailed down, people!" on air. But the night of the Simpson chase the audience, essentially, reached out and put ABC television in its place.

I'm being unfair to Peter Jennings here, because it wasn't just Jennings or ABC or even TV alone being brought down. No one seemed to know what they were doing that day. I still have a clipping of the most hilarious typo I've ever seen in the New York Times; it ran the next morning. The caption to two photos read, "The chase began on Interstate 5 near El Toro, in Orange County, and ended about 50 miles away at Mr. Simpson's home in Los Angeles." But the photos -- whether an outright mistake or a joke that didn't get torn down in time -- were of 1) O.J. running a play with the Buffalo Bills and 2) O.J. being served tea by Leslie Nielsen in one of the "Naked Gun" movies.

The Bronco chase was the signal event of a period in media that would offer people great opportunity and responsibility, when our viewing and reading choices would be myriad, often unedited and frequently unreliable. We would be able to see much but not necessarily to believe everything. We would all become aware of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, conscious of our own role as viewer-participants (as when the police shooed helicopters from coming too close and disrupting the scene, raising the specter that we might, vicariously, have killed O.J.). We would have to become either media critics or suckers. The chase was gripping and newsworthy for all the familiar reasons -- the suspense, the slow-mo surreality, the hero's-last-run irony, the funeral/party atmosphere of the "Run, Juice, run!" gantlet of fans -- but that wasn't why it was, in the end, important. It was important because it made all of us part of the media.

You, me, the police, Peter Jennings and Larry King -- none of us except O.J., and maybe not even O.J., knew if we were about to see the death of a man on national TV. While we sat and watched dusk fall over O.J.'s driveway, waiting for something, the network anchors' comments weren't any more elucidating than those of the guys you'd been watching the Knicks game with -- and they probably weren't as funny. The ABC news department, the New York Times -- they may have been professionals, but they were visibly, demonstrably, fallible like anyone. And none of us had a claim on the truth at that moment. So why shouldn't it have been you giving the play-by-play?

If "interactivity" was the media buzzword of the '90s, Mr. Higgins was its poster child. His prank call was network TV meeting public-access cable. It was the Internet, years before the Internet became popularized. That is, it was the battle cry of the universal mike-grab, for better and worse. It was tasteless and irresponsible and cruel, and it epitomized a decade in media when talking back to the TV would become an art form (see "Beavis and Butt-Head"), whose most representative voices would be those that offended proper sensibilities -- RuPaul, Roseanne, "Beavis," "South Park," the Farrelly brothers, Todd Solondz, Web sites like Salon and Drudge and, certainly, Howard Stern himself, who's both an unapologetic ass and a biting, smart commentator.

Of course, that could have happened with any live event. There was something else about O.J. that made him the perfect leveler between the media and its audience -- he belonged to both of us. We tend to forget, after two trials and a thousand on-air excommunications of the man, that O.J.was not just a target of the media but a full-fledged member: not just a football star and pitchman but an ABC sportscaster who worked, lunched and played golf with the media elite -- he had gotten inside in a way that mere money didn't generally get a running back or a black American.

So when newscasters covering the chase said, "We just don't want to believe that this man we've loved all his career can be guilty," that we had a couple of meanings. In one sense, the surface one, it was you: that big, fake, warm "we" that embraces the audience and wishes, now more wistfully than ever, for permission to speak for it. But in the other, subtextual sense, it was, emphatically, not you: It was we, the guys who wear the network blazers and the makeup.

Soon enough, it would become de rigeur to swear him off -- soon Charles Grodin's career arc would take him from former star of "Beethoven" to crusading anti-O.J. fulminator to, well, former star of "Beethoven." But for the moment, broadcasters like ABC's Al Michaels and KCBS's Jim Hill reminisced about their friend and colleague and even broke the fourth wall to beg him to surrender. They drew aside the veil separating the audience from the Elysian 19th hole of sports greats and TV stars and reminded us that the white Bronco we were following wouldn't have looked out of place in their own driveways.

It was a vulnerability they couldn't afford to maintain. O.J. knew this better than any of us, even as he knew that that world was all slipping away from him. During the chase, Michaels noted that O.J. had told him by cell phone the day before, "I have to get out of the media business." He kept that promise, on and off, willingly and not, over the next five years, vowing seclusion and selling a videotape; cutting himself off one day, phoning up TV talk shows out of the blue the next. From that Friday night on, however, the rest of us were in the media business to stay.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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