Ten years ago a slow, white Bronco became a national joke.
It also became a symbol of something quite serious, in the view of one East Valley media observer.
Craig Allen, who teaches broadcast news at Arizona State University, believes the O.J. Simpson case had a profoundly negative effect on the media and society.
Allen is in the midst of conducting his annual summer camp for high school students who aspire to become broadcasters, but despairs of what has become of the business they hope to enter.
"Up to 1994, there was vehement criticism that TV news was infecting the morals of society, and I never believed that," Allen said. "Then when the O.J. Simpson trial began to appear on TV, that’s when I began . . . to agree with the critics who said that television news was doing bad things for society."
It wasn’t that the Simpson case all of a sudden cheapened TV news, Allen said. That had been going on long before.
But a line was crossed when the nation followed live coverage of Simpson’s white Bronco rolling slowly down a California freeway, his subsequent arrest and his trial.
For the most part until then, TV news had been confined to discrete newscasts. It went to live coverage only when real history was being made. Now, relatively insignificant events could unfold in real time, with no opportunity for reflection or context.
"That was a bad thing. It narcotized the public to real events in the news," Allen said.
Apparently it narcotized broadcasting students, too.
If previous generations were motivated by idealism, Allen said half his students today want to be celebrity journalists. "They want to be on ‘Entertainment Tonight.’ "
He saw echoes of O.J. in last year’s coverage from Iraq, where networks used "embedded" reporters in hopes of bringing another "live, ongoing, melodramatic spectacle" to our living rooms.
"Ever since O.J. Simpson, the media are looking for the next O.J. Simpson spectacle," he said. Some stories have come closer than others. That of washed-up actor Robert Blake, accused of killing his wife, "never really took off." Now TV news seeks to make hay with the story of Scott and Laci Peterson, an ordinary murder case elevated to the level of national soap opera. And you can bet the cameras will be rolling nonstop when Michael Jackson goes on trial.
The problem with these stories, Allen believes, is they don’t really mean anything. They do serve, in and of themselves, as commentaries on the viewing public’s priorities. Beyond that, they’re just cotton candy.
Ten years after the O.J. case, Allen said, "All we remember is the hours and hours and hours of courtroom drama, which in the end amounted to nothing."