Watch without guilt as TV splits hairs on Simpson hearing

July 01, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Once upon a time, I was fascinated by the O. J. Simpson case and felt dirty and voyeuristic and knew I should be embarrassed that I wasn't more high-minded.

Then everything changed.

I'm still fascinated by the O. J. Simpson case. I'm just not embarrassed anymore.

Why not be fascinated?

Why not have ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, the Court Channel and, for all I know, ESPN2 go gavel-to-gavel in the first day of a preliminary hearing that was mostly about how many hairs Simpson would have to surrender to the laboratory police?

Like much of real life, the "show" had a pacing problem. It was often as interesting as Mr. Gump's physics class.

That's live TV for you. One day, it's a car chase. The next day, it's ex parte communications.

There were moments, though. Like the testimony about the hunting knife. And this exchange:

Attorney: "Do you know about how many hairs there are on an average human head?"

Witness: "No, I do not. It varies. Just looking around the room, it varies a lot."

Of course, the case is important. It's a double murder we're talking about. But hundreds of Americans are killed every day, and I don't see Dan Rather broadcasting their trials. Maybe he should.

You know why the networks are going all-out on this case.

Because they can.

Look, here's a person who became not only wildly famous but embraced all the trappings of the rich and famous. Now, he stands accused of the worst kind of crime and might even face the death penalty. It's just too darn lurid to pass up. Or have you been talking about Rwanda over lunch much these days?

Yeah, I know.

We should be watching McNeil-Lehrer. Except O. J. is on McNeil-Lehrer, too.

This was inevitable. Media types kept insisting the public had the right to know everything -- and people bought it.

If you were watching, you got Peter-Dan-Tom at mikeside, flanked by experts who would say things like, "Momentum is switching to the defense, Tom," while analyzing obscure rules of evidence that would put a law student to sleep.

Nothing much is at stake. It's a preliminary hearing that will -- if the TV experts are right -- almost certainly result in an indictment.

Still, Peter-Dan-Tom, no relation to Larry-Curly-Moe, brought their considerable PRESTIGE and WEIGHT and SALARIES to the proceedings. Dan did not bring his flak jacket, however.

There will be much hand-wringing about the Big 3's day in court. There will be much lamenting the tabloidization of TV news and how, next, Peter will do "Hard Copy."

Here's another way to look at it. They show the entire National Football League draft on TV. Why not the Simpson hearing? They're played out pretty much the same way, too, with graphics and color analysts. O. J. was a color analyst himself. Sports invented this kind of coverage. Then you saw it in the Persian Gulf war. This time, ex-generals give way to lawyers.

Is the coverage excessive?

Of course.

Does it suggest the end of Western Civilization as we know it?

Actually, it perfectly reflects Western Civilization as it has, uh, evolved.

If the Simpson case weren't on, what would you have been watching, "All My Children"?

The p-word -- pandering -- comes up a lot. As far as I can tell, pandering means showing things that people want to watch. By the way, there will be several accounts in this high-minded newspaper and others.

We watch "Perry Mason" and "Columbo" and "L.A. Law" to see the kind of fictional crime played out in the swank environs of Los Angeles. You think we're going to turn down a shot at a real-life celebrity on trial for murder? I don't think so.

If you missed the first day, here's what happened. Simpson wore a tie for the first time in court. I kept waiting for one of the networks to bring in somebody from Countess Mara.

Otherwise, it was a lesson that might have been titled "You and the Law." I hope you were paying attention/stayed awake. There could be a pop quiz.

In real-life trials, unlike the TV kind, there can be great stretches without any drama. But we should not forget that in real-life trials, unlike the TV kind, there are also real victims.

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