Checkbook journalism stank then, stinks now

November 21, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Something sounded eerily familiar about O.J. Simpson selling a sleazy near-confession in book and TV deals. Then it came to me: Emmett Louis Till.

The brutal 1955 murder of Till, a black teenager from Chicago who was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, energized a decade of civil rights actions and reforms. It also led to a shocking episode of checkbook journalism.

After J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant were quickly found not guilty of murdering Till by an all-white jury, they confessed at length in a 1956 Look magazine article, for which they were paid $4,000. They did not fear being tried again for Till's murder because of constitutional protections against double jeopardy.

Neither does Mr. Simpson, who comes about as close as one can to confessing to the 1994 murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, while crouching behind a hypothetical "if" in his now-canceled book, If I Did It, and a two-part interview on the Fox network (also withdrawn as of yesterday). Judith Regan of ReganBooks paid Simpson $3.5 million, according to some news reports, although Ms. Regan declined to reveal the amount.

The Look article, headlined "The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi," removed all doubt as to the suspects' guilt. Ms. Regan and her parent company - Rupert Murdoch's media empire, which owns the Fox network - couldn't claim as much. Mr. Simpson's supposed tell-all, which had been planned for release Nov. 30, teases and taunts all of us, particularly the victims' families. Judging from what has been reported about the sleazy book, I can't imagine who would have wanted to buy it.

Yet, as much as this latest Simpson episode further illuminates the questionable practice of checkbook journalism, it also moves us closer to the real Mr. Simpson. He is telling us this much: He is either the killer or amazingly nuts - or both.

The message to his defenders and those who gave him the benefit of the doubt is that he no longer deserves any of that benefit.

Is that too harsh? I doubt it. Some high-profile crimes can have a tremendous impact on the nation's social order and sense of justice. Rosa Parks said she had Emmett Till's death on her mind when she refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery, Ala., bus and ignited the boycotts that touched off the modern civil rights movement. The national horror over Till's death and the exoneration of his killers isolated Southern segregationists and paved the way to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other reforms.

What has Mr. Simpson's not-guilty verdict brought? No matter which opinion you hold about the facts of the case or the fairness of Mr. Simpson's prosecution, there's no question that the racial pain, fear, anger, resentment and suspicion of American society played themselves out in the aftermath of his exoneration by an almost all-black jury.

Just as the backlash against Till's death led to the isolation of Southern segregationists, the backlash against the Simpson verdict seems, in my view, to have brought further isolation of the civil rights and civil liberties movements.

As much as Till's murder gave moral capital to the human rights struggle, Mr. Simpson has sought to take his verdict and turn it into cash, even if it's snatched away by the victims' families. They won a $33.5 million civil judgment against Mr. Simpson, which they have yet to collect.

If Till's death made it easier to argue that the scales of justice were tilted against African-Americans, Mr. Simpson's antics could make it harder to argue for the rights of the accused who don't have Mr. Simpson's money.

So like Look magazine, Ms. Regan and Fox - despite the failure of their project - have done us the favor of greater insight, if not the total truth, about another historic crime. They've coerced a suspected killer into giving us, for all intents and purposes, a confession. Mr. Simpson doesn't quite say that he was the killer, but he lets us know he's cold-blooded.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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