Verdict consequences are overstated

October 12, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Even those of us who don't watch much television would admit, if pressed, that we kept a fairly close eye on the O. J. Simpson trial while it lasted. But now that it's over there are some encouraging signs that it's going to be soon forgotten.

In terms of race relations, it was an unhappy and embarrassing moment, but not a defining one. And it certainly wasn't the trial of the century.

In the beginning, leaving the trial behind us may take a little determination. The chattering classes are trying hard to keep our attention focused on it -- or, more accurately, on them and what they want to say about it. They'll gladly tell us What It All Means, they seem to say, if we'll only sit still and listen.

This week, O. J. is on the cover of Newsweek and Time, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee news magazines. Each of them proudly proclaims its coverage a ''Special Report.'' Assorted ruminations concerning his acquittal fill up most of the conservative Weekly Standard and the liberal New Republic. (Both are horrified by the verdict, but for different reasons.) O. J. appears in a supermarket tabloid, for money, and, almost, in an NBC interview, for free.

L.A. law

All this continuing attention certainly suggests that Mr. Simpson's odyssey through the Los Angeles version of the American criminal justice system is important, and somehow represents a larger truth. But this story isn't ''Pilgrim's Progress,'' and its appeal was far more prurient than philosophical.

Like many other Hollywood productions which reach large audiences, while it was indisputably dramatic and bizarre and occasionally sickening, its importance has been overstated. Their moment of fame over, most of the cast will soon slip away down the national memory hole.

The trial didn't raise important legal issues. The murders with which the defendant was charged were no bloodier or more brutal than many of the other domestic-violence homicides which take place in our country every year. It received the extraordinary media attention it did because it mixed the Hollywood staples of violence, sex and celebrity into a powerful entertainment cocktail.

Theater for the masses

The coverage, in the best free-market journalistic tradition, was demand-driven. The defendant was rich and famous, with rich and famous friends, and he appeared to lead a life totally unrelated to what most of us would consider every-day reality. Thus his story made good theater, and many people watched it as though it were ''Melrose Place.'' They followed the action closely, and perhaps identified with some of the characters, but didn't confuse it with real life.

Others watched the trial for political purposes. It provided them ammunition for a dizzy panoply of perspectives and prejudices running the full range of the opinion spectrum, and they eagerly took advantage of that.

The O. J. proceedings have been variously cited to ''prove'' that white cops are racists, that big money always wins, that the jury system is fatally flawed, that black women are too tolerant of spousal violence, that cameras have no place in a courtroom. For all I know even the animal-rights people have weighed in on behalf of the victim's blood-spattered dog.

But as the trial neither proved nor disproved anyone's propaganda, once it was over public attention began to wane, and its usefulness to causists of all types was immediately diminished. Even O. J. himself, once he was acquitted, instantly became a less fascinating figure, for when he gained his freedom he lost his status, however spurious, as a victim of the system.

Real news, not show biz

There was a nice irony in the juxtaposition of the Simpson verdict with the visit to America of Pope John Paul II. This was real news, not show business, as most of the newspaper coverage -- in The Sun and the New York Times especially -- demonstrated. (Sophisticated Newsweek, not surprisingly, just didn't get it. It patronizingly explained that the Times covered the papal visit so well because ''multicultural New York is still a predominantly Catholic town.''

O. J., the grimy lawyers, the ludicrous judge -- all these were flickering figures on a screen. But Pope John Paul was much more, and not only to Catholics. He spoke to real people, whatever their race or religion or income, and linked their lives to eternal human concerns. Those who saw him, or listened closely to what he had to say, will remember it always.

In her famous poem ''Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning,'' writer Alice Walker notes that ''the healing of all our wounds is forgiveness.'' Like Pope John Paul's, this is a message of good sense and reconciliation that will last a lot longer than Johnnie Cochran's.

It offers reason to expect that race relations in America will survive the wounds of the Simpson trial, if for no other reason than that there are so many more people of good sense on both sides than there are demagogues.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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