The Trial of the Century of the Month

If tragedy repeats as farce, how does farce repeat? It's hard to imagine anyone other than the defendant himself getting very excited about the sentence in the latest O.J. Simpson case. But it's also easy to forget just how obsessed the country became with his murder trial. Whole law school courses (in evidence, criminal law, criminal procedure, etc) were taught using the Simpson case as raw material. And of course, the larger culture embraced the Simpson trial for what it said about celebrity, race, domestic violence, and a host of other subjects. I vividly recall complete strangers asking me what I thought about OJ (or as a woman who worked at a dry cleaner I frequented at the time inexplicably referred to him, "Big Bird").

Looking back, it's also hard not to run together the media circus surrounding the Simpson case and the Monica Lewinsky affair. One completely appropriate frame in which to view the mid to late 90s is distraction: As serious enemies of the United States gathered strength and as the basis for our economy unraveled, Americans took a long vacation. In this narrative, 9/11 snapped us back into reality, although the balance of the Bush years replaced the distraction of scandal with the distraction of fear.

Here's another way to frame Simpson Then and Simpson Now: The first Simpson case was instrumental in the creation of the phenomenon of cable news. OJ didn't exactly create Greta Van Susteren (and other talking heads), but he did greatly increase their time in front of the camera. And though Van Susteren (and no doubt others) are already picking over the carcass of Simpson 2, this sequel is about as compelling as would be, say, a reunion show of Frazier---a revival of a spinoff.

Following the media narrative, then, we might point to the rise of the internet---and to the fact that cable news has practically become a parody of itself (so much so that the best parody of the genre is the most realistic)---as reason to think that the farce of OJ 2 is simply a marker for the decline of all tv news. There is something to that view, no doubt, but I would also argue that some of the tendency towards hysteria of our online culture owes to the fact that it was born and nurtured in the shadow of cable news. In that sense, the OJ-obsessed culture is the gift that keeps giving.

Posted by Mike Dorf