O.J. Hangover: Networks Say "No" to Juice

Flash! asked B&C Contributing Editor Andrew Tyndall to consider the coverage of O.J. Simpson's latest appearance in the news cycle against the record coverage he inspired when he first rose to infamy a decade ago.

Flocking to cover the cancellation of If I Did It, Here's How It Happened, Fox's ill-considered sweeps-stunt interview with O.J. Simpson, the broadcast networks struck a decidedly sanctimonious chord.

"A pretty revolting idea," said CBS anchor Katie Couric, declaring that no Evening News airtime had been spent dignifying Simpson's quasi-confession of how he murdered his ex-wife and her friend. The project was "not worth our time or yours," Couric assured us as she introduced correspondent Sandra Hughes' coverage of its cancellation.

In Hughes' report, Fox's own Geraldo Rivera vowed, "I will bash this project every opportunity I have to bash this project."

George Lewis, an NBC News correspondent and Couric's former colleague, echoed those sentiments. Commenting on News Corp.'s decision to spike both the primetime special and Simpson's forthcoming book from the company's ReganBooks, Lewis pronounced it "a rarity in the media business these days: a victory of good taste over crass commercialism."

Well, there's nothing like the fervor of a bunch of reformed drunks.

The O.J. Simpson saga was undoubtedly the most egregiously over-covered story of the 1990s—the third-most-newsworthy event, in terms of broadcast minutes expended, of the entire decade (after the Gulf War and the civil war in Bosnia). On the Big Three nightly newscasts, O.J. received even more airtime than the impeachment of President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal (2,896 versus 2,393 minutes).

NBC's ratings juice

No network mainlined the Juice like NBC, where Couric was anchor for Today and Lewis was a Nightly News correspondent. Simpson was the lead story on Tom Brokaw's nightly newscast on 78 separate occasions (compared with 57 on ABC and 68 on CBS).

And NBC's trial coverage was the launch pad for such disparate characters as David Bloom (who went on to cover the White House and later died covering the Iraq War), Jack Ford (later a weekend anchor on ABC's Good Morning America) and Star Jones (the recently departed panelist on ABC's The View).

NBC devoted more time to the three-year O.J. saga than to the three-year war over the break-up of the former Yugoslavia (1,098 versus 1,080 minutes). In that time, Today regained first place in the morning, Nightly regained first place in the evening, and The Tonight Show, on the entertainment side, regained first place in late night, fielding O.J. trial bits like its troupe of dancers dressed as Judge Lance Ito.

But NBC was far from alone. CNN, still basking in its post-Gulf War prominence, filled its yawning daytime with gavel-to-gavel trial feed. Greta van Susteren made her name there as a legal analyst before being hired away by Fox News Channel, just as MSNBC General Manager Dan Abrams did at Court TV.

Back in the mid '90s, the networks at least had the fig leaf of journalism to cover the shame of their tabloid sensationalism. The Simpson trial in 1995 capped a period during which crime of all sorts topped the hard-news agenda.

After penal policy became a major issue in the 1988 presidential elections, police misconduct and racial bias in criminal trials moved to the forefront with the Rodney King beating case and the riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of the police officers accused of assaulting him. Gun control was a crucial wedge issue in the 1994 midterm elections.

Tabloid craze remains

But that fig leaf is gone now. The networks hardly bother to go through the motions of treating crime as a social issue.

In the first 10 months of this year, none of the major criminology beats—penal policy, gun control, the death penalty, violent-crime statistics, police procedures and the war on drugs—received as much attention as the wrongful arrest of a suspect in another decade-old tabloid retread: the JonBenet Ramsey murder case.