Spectacle: Media and the Making of the O.J. Simpson Story

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Overview

In the Year of Simpson, the country was caught in the throes of the biggest story ever. No other single news event in our history could match the sheer scope and intensity of coverage given to the O. J. Simpson murder case. But the media did not just report the Simpson case, they were instrumental in creating it—a spectacle of such stupendous proportions that it hijacked American culture. In this critical exposé of American media, Thaler presents a riveting narrative about the men and women who gave us the story of the century. It is a sprawling tale of the media grappling with their role as news-reporting entities; seduced by the values of entertainment and tabloidism; and faced with increased competition, fragmented audiences, and frantic pressure to keep both eyes on the bottom line.

The Simpson story is one of exploitation, of media overkill and outright pandering, of huge profitmaking, all of which undermined the trial and fueled tremendous public cynicism about the way in which justice—and the media—work in this country. For more than a year, America was held captive to the great murder story. In Thaler's analysis, the media, more than any other single participant, altered the workings of the Simpson courtroom and the outcome of one of the most celebrated trials in America's history. From the first coverage of the murders to the final days of the trial of the century, the media were not only telling us what had become of justice in this country, but also what had become of them. This is that story.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Through detailed analysis of media intervention in the O.J. Simpson trial, Thaler (journalism and media, Mercy Coll.) sets out to demonstrate that the media did not just report the case but were instrumental in creating it. As he did in The Watchful Eye (Praeger, 1994), the author explores the ramifications of a televised courtroom, examining the profound effect this medium has on reporters, lawyers, law enforcement officials, news organizations, and the public at large. By carefully examining scores of news transcripts and interviews with reporters, Thaler shows how a murder trial metamorphosed into a made-for-TV docudrama about racial tensions in the United States. From the moment the nation stopped and watched the white Bronco crawling down a California freeway to the reading of the verdict and its far-reaching aftermath, America was held captive by this story. With welcome objectivity, Thaler tells how it all happened. This is not just another O.J. book but a sharp analysis of the case that prods us to a greater awareness of the interplay of forces affecting our understanding of daily events. Recommended for all libraries and current events collections in schools.Deborah Bigelow, Leonia P.L., N.J.
Booknews
Narrates the mass media coverage and to a large degree creation of the murder trial. Discusses reporters' role as news-reporting entities and how they were seduced by the values of entertainment and tabloidism and were faced with increased competition, fragmented audiences, and pressure from the bottom line. Concludes that the event was comprised of exploitation, media overkill and outright pandering, and huge profiteering all of which undermined the trial and fueled public cynicism about both justice and the media. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
William Haltom
Readers will find interesting criticisms of mass media and delightful factoids about "The People of the State of California versus Orenthal James Simpson" in this book. Browsed as a review of the depths to which media stooped and the extent to which cameras formed events and fanned hysteria, THE SPECTACLE rewards the reader. To reach the insights, however, readers will have to overlook or discount more general claims that the author advances. Those claims may provoke more than persuade most scholars of law and courts. Paul Thaler, Director of Journalism and Media at Mercy College, begins from a contention every reader may concede: "The storymakers not only shaped public perceptions of the case but the very trial itself. And it couldn't have happened without the camera in the court." [p. xv] True, readers most interested in televised trials may ask to what degree coverage of an aberrant case validly bears on any serious issues, but they will grant that the camera in Judge Ito's courtroom amplified centrifugal tendencies of the Simpson trial. Thaler easily sustains his objection that the camera that recorded the Simpson trial made storytellers misbehave more than they might have been able to otherwise. Beyond that well worn contention, however, Thaler overreaches: "In my previous book, THE WATCHFUL EYE, I argue that the trend in televised justice has been a dangerous Faustian bargain, where the judicial 'soul' of the American courtroom has been traded for what we perceive as progress and enhanced freedom. In the Simpson trial, we paid the devil his due." [p. xv] Because Thaler never distinguishes between evils directly and fairly attributable to the watchful TV camera and deficiencies to be expected in any case, invoking the devil seems excessive--an ironic shortcoming for one who excoriates immoderate reporters. To succeed in any broad attack on cameras in courtrooms or mass-mediated litigation, Thaler would have had to traverse terrain made treacherous by cross-disciplinary fire. A self-described media critic usually enjoys methodological and rhetorical leeways that social scientists and lawyers are supposed to deny themselves and always deny others. These leeways, evident in Thaler's statements of his overall points, will become targets for students of law and courts. For example, a media critic has latitude to claim that "the media themselves may have been the SINGLE MOST DECISIVE FACTOR contributing to the legal strategies and decisions coming from the presiding judge and trial attorneys." [p. xiv] However, readers of many disciplines would agree that, by shouting "the single most decisive factor" then mumbling "contributing to the legal strategies," Thaler takes back with the latter phrase any stakes raised by the former. Worse, this central proposition from Thaler’s introduction is not very interesting: so many considerations inform strategy in social settings that to isolate any as decisive is often problematic and sometimes reductionist. Social scientists, journalists, and lawyers could easily suggest several factors that "may have been the single most decisive" even without consulting inventories in dozens of books about the Simpson case. Centuries of racism inside and outside courts may have most decisively dictated the defense's use of race, a strategy crafted before Judge Ito decided about the courtroom camera. If the venire and the city from which jurors were selected dictated decisions on both sides, neither the camera inside nor the cameras outside the courtroom may have mattered as much as the venue to Johnnie Cochran or Gil Garcetti. Many participants and observers have handicapped Judge Ito and the parade of advocates before him to reveal shortcomings unrelated to mass media as well as the myriad imperfections accentuated by media--who is to extricate media-accentuated from media-independent faults? A citizen's video-cam aimed at Rodney King’s beating and a tape-recorder aimed at Mark Fuhrman's mouth arguably had much more to do with the reputation of the Los Angeles Police Department than did the camera in the courtroom or even the extravaganza outside. Other authors have argued that misconceptions about and toleration of spousal abuse may have helped "the Dream Team" and overburdened the prosecution. The successful civil suit against Simpson may suggest that the single most decisive factor that shaped prosecution and defense alike was the adversarial process. The burden of proof, the privilege against self-incrimination, and rules of U.S. criminal procedure appear to have doomed the prosecution in the view of twelve citizens who saw little coverage. The merit of this whole, therefore, may be less than the value of its parts. In his vignettes and episodes, Thaler decisively contributes to our understanding of "media logic" at the end of the millennium. Let me count the ways. First, Thaler dramatically renders familiar failings of news media. Most readers realize that mass media are driven by profits, that too many respectable broadcasters emulate tabloids in their pursuit of infotainment, that reporters and editors not only report the news but in many cases make or remake the news, and that the connection between reports and reality is at best tenuous. Thaler meticulously surveys Simpson's circus of the surreal to show what one hopes was a nadir of mass media. That is a major virtue of his book. Second, perhaps Thaler's most fecund insight is that coverage of the trial was shaped by the conventions of television dramas, especially courtroom dramas and cop shows. Thaler argues that the celebrity defendant and his high profile lawyers generated interest but the defense's theory of police corruption and incompetence presupposed plots from TV series. Even more intriguing is the possibility that the defense may have shaped its theory to suit the expectations of jurors well versed in Hollywood make-believe. Thaler reminds readers that centuries of racism and decades of police malfeasance have supplied "dream teams" with ample resources for alleging evidence-planting and "testilying." Now there is a proposition worth pursuing at length! Third, Thaler makes telling points about public storytelling, fantastic characters, and evil machinations. These points would be even more forceful if Thaler extended his scrutiny of storytelling to narratives advanced by the prosecution. He deftly recounts transformations and deformations of participants into personas for media characterization and caricature, the media's hapless reliance on pundits and alleged experts who guessed wrong more than they guess right, and the bountiful opportunism manifested by almost everyone even remotely associated with the trial. Fourth, THE SPECTACLE deftly investigates how news reporters and producers became victims of the cultural wreckage they worked. Thaler covers those who catalogued the Simpson curiosities to reveal how foibles led to folderol. In sum, I found this book most rewarding as a tour of a massive, extended media event and as an exposé of an interplay among crime, race, culture, justice, and celebrity in postmodern America. This provocative backward look might work best as a recommended text in a course on media politics. Students curious about the Simpson trial might find THE SPECTACLE useful for ideas, but Thaler's documentation is so spotty that other Simpson books will better serve students in search of sources and facts. Scholars will get the most out of THE SPECTACLE if they regard it as a trove of tidbits about the latest trial of the century. Even the thesis or theses that Thaler proclaims in his introduction may inform readers who realize that he has hyped his findings, for one may learn from this that "media logic" affects even scholarly works.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780275953195
  • Publisher: ABC-CLIO, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/28/1997
  • Pages: 346
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

PAUL THALER is Director of Journalism and Media at Mercy College.

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Table of Contents

Introduction

Murder in Los Angeles

Bundy and Rockingham

The Chase

Frenzy in L.A.

The Greatest Story Ever

Metamorphosis

The Race Card

Judge Ito and the Media

The Great Camera Debate

Media Wars

The Trial of O. J. Simpson

Firestorm

Exposed

House of Mirrors

The Journalists

The Fuhrman Trial

The Black and White Press

Closing Curtain

Judgment Day

Aftermath

Prologue

Index

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