Truth and the tube

June 24, 1994

Who was not riveted last Friday by the spectacle of the lone white Ford Bronco with fugitive celebrity O.J. Simpson inside wending its way along the California interstate followed by a line of police cars and flanked by throngs of motorists who had gotten out of their cars to cheer the procession on?

Television brought us a helicopter-eye view of the slow-motion chase and framed it in layer upon layer of familiar narrative: It was a breaking news story, a sports brief, a talk show and a true-life crime drama all rolled into one. Most people agreed they had never seen anything quite like it.

The effect was hypnotic but also disconcerting, painful and ambiguous: Was this an athletic event, an "Oprah"-like group therapy session or a real-life episode of "C.O.P.S."? Coming after the casual amateurishness of the Rodney King videotape, Mr. Simpson's flight looked like the proverbial Hollywood blockbuster, with big-name principals and lavish production values.

Believing in the reality of images, we can easily confuse verisimilitude with truth. The narratives of television are deceptive because they are so familiar that they persuade even when we are unaware of them. Many of the people who lined the highway to watch the pursuit, for example, seemed unable to distinguish O.J. the gridiron escape artist from O.J. the fugitive from justice. Others seemed unconsciously to confuse his situation with that of actor Harrison Ford in the movie "The Fugitive" -- as if, since Mr. Ford's character was innocent, Mr. Simpson must be, too.

One reason the pursuit was so mesmerizing was the subliminal realization that at any moment one might witness a spectacular and bloody act of violence leading to Mr. Simpson's death -- live and on-screen. It was a surreal reminder of the dark thrill of the Roman arena transplanted into an era of cellular phones and satellite communication.

TV makes us all spectators in the global village, united for a few hours in modern rituals whose scripts have the ancient authority of myth. There was something tragic and Shakespearean about O.J.'s last end-run home. But like myth, the narratives of the tube conceal as much as they reveal. O.J. Simpson is both more and less than the genial hunk portrayed in rental car ads. Surely we must have known as much. But ironically, we had to see it on TV -- live and in color -- before the sad import of that self-evident truth finally sank in.

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