Twenty-plus years later and the O.J. Simpson murder case continues to shock and fascinate us. As if you didn’t think there was anything more to learn, a pairing of television offerings this year retold the story in both dramatic and documentary form. FX’s outstanding 10-part “People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story” was followed on the heels by ESPN’s 5-part 30 for 30, “OJ: Made in America.” And the events and issues surrounding the trial and acquittal were dredged up again in astonishing detail.
Judy Muller, USC Annenberg Professor of Journalism and a juror on the Walter Cronkite Awards for Excellence in Television Political Journalism (which the Lear Center administers), covered the trial as a national correspondent for ABC News. And her reportage on the Simpson case earned her an Emmy. I asked her a few questions about her experience, and the state of race, celebrity and the media in the two decades that followed.
1) How do you account for this renewed interest in the OJ Simpson case?
I’m not sure “renewed” is the right word. “Rekindled” might be more appropriate, since so many people never really stopped being interested in this case, including me. My daughters once joked that I need a “12-step” program to “let go” of unresolved issues around the OJ case. There is also an entirely new generation that has never really heard the whole story, and because it is one hell of a story – involving celebrity, race, money, trial surprises, accusations of corrupt police – in other words, all the elements of a compelling TV drama, it’s no surprise that a new look at this old case should be of interest to so many people.
2) Have you watched any of the retellings — the FX series or documentary? What were your initial thoughts about them?
I have watched both the FX series and the documentary by 30-30. Both were excellent, although one was a fictionalized account and the other was non-fiction, in-depth, and a wider view of the way the trial played into the biggest issues of that time – and, to a large extent – the issues of race and justice inequality that plague us to this day. The FX series was based on Jeff Toobin’s book, which I believe was the best book written about the trial. Even though I had read that book, watching the series revealed some behind-the-scenes moments that I had either forgotten about or had not known about. Fascinating. The documentary was brilliant, period. I covered the trials for ABC’s “NIGHTLINE” and we always tried to place developments against the bigger backdrop of race relations and the disparity between black and white populations in L.A. regarding the justice system. Since I had also covered Rodney King and the riots, that was a natural connection for us. But I don’t think many other media outlets did the same. This documentary did just that, pointing out how absurd it seemed to so many people that OJ Simpson (“I’m not black, I’m OJ”) should come to represent racial injustice, an alleged victim of police corruption.
3) So much has been written about how media changed from this. What would you say is the most significant change in the way the news media functions post-OJ?
I’d love to say that news coverage changed for the better, but that would be a lie. If anything, the advent of social media and the rush to be first, even if corrections must be made later (I call this “the age of retraction”) have muddied the coverage of breaking news stories, especially those involving celebrities. Sometimes I try to imagine what coverage of the OJ case would have been like if we had been tweeting every new development. Scary. If the OJ story changed anything, it was to convince news outlets that covering every minute of a sensational trial can lead to fantastic ratings, even if that coverage fails to shed light on the major issues of the time. I look at shows like TMZ as the spawn of the OJ case. That said, TMZ does break real news now and then, even if they have to pay sources to get those breaks (and yes, paying sources became rampant during the OJ trial).
4) Was there anything about this trial that shifted the way you did your job?
The shift that I am thinking of really started with the Rodney King trial and continued through the Simpson case. As a white reporter, I learned to listen a lot better when covering issues of race and the differences between the way whites and blacks in this country view the justice system. The reaction to the verdict in the Simpson case split this country down racial lines. Blacks understood this immediately. Whites were shocked. It was a painful, but necessary lesson in examining the way our history (especially the history of police relations with black communities) had led to this moment. When I teach young journalists today, one of the first things I do in my class is to go around the room and have each person talk about their own prejudices, ones that might get in the way of fairly covering some issues (race, sex, guns, abortion, etc.), then having a discussion about the importance of knowing what those biases are before we head out to interview people who don’t agree with us. We are never “objective,” really, but we can be fair, if we are honest about our own biases. I thought the evidence against OJ Simpson was overwhelming. Some of my colleagues thought the police had framed him. The series and documentary are great reminders of how powerful those racial wedge issues came into play in this case.
5) How do you think it has changed our relationship with celebrity?
Famous people have always attracted more attention than ordinary people, especially when they are accused of murder. But the OJ Simpson case proved how lucrative the coverage of those celebrities can be, even if it’s for minor incidents (Lindsay Lohan comes to mind). TMZ, celebrity “news” sites, social media coverage – all drink from the pool of scandal – even if it’s sometimes a mirage. Privacy in the world of ubiquitous paparazzi, instant memes, and viral gossip is a quaint notion. For reporters trying to cover Hollywood in a responsible way (it is, after all, a major industry in California and the world), these developments have made their job more difficult, as celebrities and CEOs hide behind their PR people, behind gated communities, granting access only with pre-approved interview guidelines. It’s a very tough beat to do well.
6) We talk about what has changed for the worst since the trial, but has anything changed for the better in media or greater society?
I think the OJ Simpson case revealed the chasm between blacks and whites in this country and especially where the criminal justice system is concerned. I would like to say we have learned from that, but the repeated incidents of police brutality across the country, prompting the Black Lives Matter movement, would indicate we still have so much to learn. The one bright spot: in this age of the iPhone, everyone is a reporter and incidents of police brutality are more difficult to hide. So let’s give a cheer for the age of the Citizen Journalist.