Wednesday, March 23, 2016

O.J. trumps Trump

Something surreal happened a few days back. The cable news networks all cut away from the political horse race and their current ratings cash cow, Donald Trump, to focus on the O.J. Simpson trial. It was a flashback to my childhood, when O.J. and Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran were on television every day. O.J.'s trial for the vicious murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman was inescapable. It was "reality news" in embryo. He was everywhere: broadcast networks, cable channels, newspapers, magazines.

He was even in my schoolhouse: One of my more vivid memories from middle school is of milling about on the hardwood basketball floor, waiting for gym class to end, when the overhead speakers crackled to life. "O.J. Simpson has been found innocent," the principal said. Or something like it, anyway; 13-year-old Sonny probably wasn't ready to grapple with the nuances of "innocent" versus "not guilty." More clearly do I remember the sociology of the moment: African-American kids on one side of the room whooping it up; white kids on the other, bemused. It may not have been the first time I noticed race as a concept rather than a simple skin color, but it was certainly the most intense.


And then there I was 20 years later, looking at the wall of televisions in the Washington Free Beacon's "war room," listening to CNN talk about the discovery of a knife on the property O.J. once owned. It had been found years ago by a construction worker and handed over to an off-duty cop who, for some odd reason, decided to keep it for himself. The blood-stained implement spent years in a sock drawer or some such, reappearing only when the cop remembered that he still had it.

It's such an obviously absurd story--one that the owner of the construction company quickly and vociferously denied, by the way--that it's almost certainly false in some manner. Didn't really matter, though. There were the media, breathlessly covering the case yet again, running through the thousands of hours of archived footage. O.J. trying on a glove. O.J. hearing the not-guilty verdict. O.J. in a white Bronco. O.J. O.J. O.J. For at least a few hours that Friday, the Juice was loose again.

Perhaps it's no accident that "O.J.'s" knife was "rediscovered" recently, given that the case is the subject of a melodramatic and critically acclaimed true-crime miniseries. American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson is doing big numbers for the cable network FX: The premiere garnered more than 8.3 million viewers in "live plus three" (that is, people who watched it the day it aired or over the next three days on their DVRs), a record number for series premieres on the network.

The show is an entertaining bit of overly dramatic silliness. But it's also insightful in its treatment of reality news. We see the way the culture helped corrupt the case: Robert Shapiro trying to convince The New Yorker that it was about the LAPD's trying to frame a black man, Judge Lance Ito's preoccupation with celebrities, that sort of thing.

More tenuously--but far more humorously--American Crime Story is also, in a way, The Kim Kardashian Origin Story. Astute viewers will perhaps remember that the O.J. Simpson trial was the nation's first introduction to Robert Kardashian, Kim's father. And her presence looms over the first couple of episodes, strangely enough. When O.J. hides out in Robert Kardashian's house before embarking on the infamous Bronco chase, he pulls a gun out in the future reality star's bedroom. "Do not kill yourself in Kimmy's bedroom!" Robert plaintively cries, a line and an image that can only prompt hard-to-stifle guffaws in the cognizant viewer.

Later, we see Kim and her siblings cheering O.J. on during the chase. The scene is almost certainly fabricated, as is a conversation that Robert has with his kids at a restaurant in the next episode. The family manages to score primo seats in a crowded Los Angeles restaurant because the hostess recognizes the father: "You're Richard Kordovian!" she yips, before guiding them to their seats ahead of the waiting masses. Wowed by the star treatment she and her family are receiving, Kimmy looks awed.

"We are Kardashians, and in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous," Robert says, trying to extinguish the stars flitting through Kim's eyes. "Fame is fleeting, it's hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart." We, the audience, are meant to giggle at these admonitions, knowing the path Kim and her clan will travel to achieve stardom. But it's a potent reminder of just how our most vacuous, empty-headed, unproductive "famous" person got her first taste of glory.

The only story capable of dethroning the current king of hare-brained reality-news spectacle, Donald Trump--he of the casinos, reality-TV shows, beauty pageants, and mediocre steaks--was the original reality-news spectacle, O.J. Simpson. That his case, which would (eventually) bring us Kim Kardashian--she of the sex tape, emojis, never-ending E! series, and constant coverage on magazine racks--is the only thing that could put a damper on cable news's Trumpmania is fitting.

And not something that should comfort the American people.

Mr. Bunch is the executive editor of the Washington Free Beacon.

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