Is this indeed the worst of times?

October 05, 1994|By Jonathan Schell

WITH O.J. Simpson's trial beaming into our living rooms from every communications satellite, people in the news business naturally are pondering what they have wrought. In the Washington Post, for example, columnist Meg Greenfield notes that it "was ever thus in America," and observes that in the 1870s, the American press couldn't get enough of an adultery scandal involving the respected Brooklyn minister, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, and the wife of a friend of his.

Certainly there can be no doubt that the appetite for sensational stories is an old one. The other day, I came across a passage in Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" that is highly pertinent to the Simpson mania. The book's hero, Charles Darnay, is on trial for treason in London's Old Bailey. If he is found guilty, the penalty will be hanging and quartering. Dickens writes:

"Everyone present . . . stared at him. All the human breath in the place rolled at him, like a sea, or a wind, or a fire. Eager faces strained round pillars and corners, to get a sight of him. . . .

"The sort of interest with which the man was stared and breathed at was not a sort that elevated humanity. Had he stood in peril of a less horrible sentence -- had there been a chance of any one of its savage details being spared -- by just so much would he have lost in his fascination. The body that was to be doomed to be so shamefully mangled was the sight; the immortal creature that was to be so butchered and torn asunder yielded the sensation. Whatever gloss the various spectators put on the interest according to their several arts and powers of self-deceit, the interest was, at root, ogreish."

It's true that, in condemning an appetite as ancient and deep-seated as this one, there is some danger of appearing "snobbish" (although that is scarcely the word for Dickens' reaction) -- and especially if the person who sits in judgment thinks he has no trace of that same appetite in his own breast. Certainly, it would be ridiculous to try to stamp out such proclivities.

However, the ubiquity of the Simpson trial in the news media raises quite different issues. Granting that the atavistic appetite dwells in most or all of us, the question still remains: What to do about it? The communications revolution has handed us an unparalleled machinery for conveying pictures and words from one place to another. Is it necessary or appropriate to turn the entire apparatus over to this one story? It's perhaps not surprising that one channel or another (say, Court TV) should carry the trial live. Must all do so? The question is one of proper roles. If the National Enquirer devotes itself to breathless revelations of the latest details of the Simpson trial, it's hard to be shocked. If the New York Review of Books did, it would be a different matter. In the one case, the publication would be following its natural bent. In the other, we would feel that a planet had been knocked out of its orbit.

Another scene of the past comes to mind. In his book, "The Great Illusion," Norman Angell describes a painting by Francesco Rizzi that represents a scene of the Spanish Inquisition. Rizzi shows "the procession to the stake of a number of heretics during the fete that followed the marriage of Charles II, his bride, and the Court and clergy of Madrid." In the painting, "The great square was arranged like a theatre, and thronged with ladies in court dress."

The scene at Old Bailey depicted by Dickens and the scene painted by Rizzi are very different. It's one thing if a crowd gathers somewhere to watch a trial for murder, or an execution. It's another, more disgusting thing if not just a self-chosen mob but all the powers that be in society have ordained that violent death is a suitable entertainment and have gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Our society, in its almost universal surrender of all the instruments of communication and entertainment to Simpson's trial for murder, more closely resembles Rizzi's Spain than Dickens' England.

Jonathan Schell writes for Newsday.

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