The O.J. Anniversary

06.17.13 3:39 PM ET

Today, someone reminds me, is the anniversary of the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase, which happened in 1995. That was really the first modern media event as we understand them today, and it's hard to describe to a young person who's grown up saturated in social media just what that night was like.

I lived in New York at the time, but I was down here in Washington, visiting my sister and her family (little Victoria at that point still in diapers--off to Kenyon College this fall, and I'm sure you all join me in wishing her the best!). We were doing what much of America was doing that night, watching the NBA Finals, Knicks versus Rockets. I don't remember what was happening in that game at that point, but it was a very good series, I believe on NBC at the time. It had to be something awfully big to make NBC cut away.

But it did. And lo and behold, the incredulous broadcaster, whoever it was, could hardly believe what he was telling America: the great O.J. Simpson, one of the finest and most belaureled athletes of the time who had become a lovably buffoonish (and pretty good actor), was on the run from the cops and may have killed his wife and this poor Goldman fellow.

It was absolutely surreal. The slow-motion-ness of it, mainly--this Bronco was going 35, 40 mph, down closed off freeways, with a dozen or two police cars in what I suppose we must call lukewarm pursuit. And it went on for what, an hour, more. Watching a bunch of cars following another car at 35 mph may not sound riveting, but under the circumstances, it was one of the most literally unbelievable things you'd ever seen.

And it was the first modern media event because it just overwhelmed everything else that was going on at the time, from the game to whatever other shows were on to you name it. I remember that my sister had what seemed at the time a pretty large number of channels, like high 30's, low 40's. We flipped through the dial at one point, and I think I remember that the chase was on 17 of those channels. Univision. PBS. Many of the basic cable channels with even the remotest semblance of a news presence. The sports channels and all the nets, of course.

I suppose some people might nominate the space shuttle explosion from the year before, but since that happened a) during a work day and b) very quickly, the wasn't quite the real-time feeding frenzy there was with Orenthal. Besides, the Challenger thing was obviously a major national tragedy. O.J. wasn't that. It was in some sense entertainment--gruesome entertainment, spectacle, quasi-Roman. It was the first time one felt man, this is a new era. It now seems the stone age, but it awakened those same impulses and reactions we have today when huge news happens and drowns us for 24 hours. It's hard to imagine an event like that today, and how crazy the response would be--maybe if he brought the "real killer" to justice. He's still working on that, isn't he?