Before Casey Anthony was splashed across the cover of People magazine; before CNN was dissecting every detail of Jodi Arias’ volatile relationship with her ex-boyfriend, the O.J. Simpson trial set a new precedence for transforming the criminal justice system into a Hollywood-style form of entertainment and a bankable builder of celebrities.
Perhaps because the nation had already witnessed the jaw-dropping police chase of Simpson’s white Ford Bronco on June 17, 1994, his trial for the double murder of ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman was primed to be an enthralling media circus.
“It was the biggest reality TV show,” says Mark Goldman, who was a producer at Court TV radio during the time of the trial and is now a partner at the Goldman McCormick media relations firm. “O.J. Simpson put Court TV on the map, but it really put reality TV on the map.”
Since then, we have had every permutation of the courtroom trial played out for our entertainment, as well as a burgeoning roster of legal experts and voices, daytime courtroom shows like Judge Judy and the evergreen People’s Court, and fictional courtroom dramas. The Simpson trial helped turn us all justice-crazy. Serial, the most popular podcast in history, shows our fascination with true crime and justice is unquenchable, even when it is told at a slower, modulated pace than the theatrics of TV.
The Simpson trial wasn’t just—or even mostly—about executing some form of criminal justice on behalf of Brown and Goldman; it became a form of mass entertainment that the nation tuned into like its favorite drama.
Television historians and media experts believe a confluence of factors led to Simpson’s trial bringing in Super Bowl-level audiences at its peak. By the way, the Super Bowl comparison is not at all hyperbolic: over 100 million tuned in for the Simpson verdict, while just over 83 million watched the Super Bowl in 1995.
So, why did Simpson steal the nation’s attention? His case was neither the first murder trial broadcast in America, nor the only one that had skewed into the arena of entertainment rather than pure news.
“It’s considered a moment, but it’s important to realize that quite a few trials before were televised: Ted Bundy was the first fully televised trial. The William Kennedy Smith trial was televised. The Menendez brothers were accused of killing their parents,” said Heidi J.S. Tworek, the head of undergraduate studies at Harvard University’s history department.
Certainly, when Simpson was charged with murder, he was far more famous than any of these suspects. “It hit so big because O.J. Simpson was bigger than life. From football to watching The Naked Gun, everyone knew him and everyone liked him. They couldn’t believe the alleged crime he did,” said Goldman.
But while Simpson came with fame, another element was at play in making it the most captivating case: race. “We have to remember it [the trial] comes after the Rodney King riots in 1992 [which followed after Los Angeles officers were acquitted for shooting an unarmed black man]. That brought the racial element into it,” said Tworek.
The ever-controversial, and therefore engrossing, racial element plus Simpson’s celebrity made it all too-perfect for the burgeoning 24-hour news media cycle. The trial hit shortly after CNN had been riding high off of its Gulf War coverage. In the first three weeks of the trials, CNN’s ratings jumped to 5.1, 5.6, and 6.3, crushing its average .7 at the time.
The New York Times noted at the time that Court TV’s ratings were as much as double those impressive spikes. Meanwhile, the network stations who couldn’t keep up with 24-hour cable networks dropped during those same weeks. Tom Brokaw wrongly brushed off cable news’ ratings success at the time, claiming the “soap opera quality” coverage wouldn’t hold Americans’ interest in the long-term.
“In most instances, a big story will take away from us for 24 hours or so, and then the country gets back to normal,” he said in February of 1995.
The 24-hour cable news network meant that the murder trial was transformed into a celebrity-making machine. Simpson, his defense team, his prosecutors, the judge, and cable legal analysts all became characters in the most gripping drama on television. Viewers treated Simpson, his attorney Johnny Cochran, and witness Kato Kaelin as stars. “What I realized is, this is entertainment. This is not news,” said Simpson defense attorney Gerald Uelmen.
In particular, Simpson’s “Dream Team” became household names with the flamboyant, infinitely quotable Cochran leading the pack. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” is one of the most famous lines spoken in a U.S. trial.
However, Cochran and company’s flair for drama may not have been incidental. “O.J. Simpson’s lawyers seemed keenly aware of playing to the camera,” said Tworek. “There’s a symbiosis of them [TV stations] filming it, but they know they’re being filmed.”
Cochran would ultimately parlay his Simpson defense into his own TV show with none other than Nancy Grace, a legal analyst who built her own fame off of the trial.
The controversial, sensationalist cable television made a name for herself because of the Simpson trial—and she wasn’t the only one.
“There’s no question the O.J. Simpson trial built careers,” said Beth Karas, who had just started working at Court TV when the trial began and is now an independent reporter operating her own website, Karas on Crime. “Greta Van Susteren was a commentator, and that [the trial] launched her. Dan Abrams was at Court TV, and there’s no question it gave him a lot of profile. Cynthia McFadden was at ABC, but it also gave her more of a profile.”
No case before and no case since has captivated the national media like the O.J. Simpson trial. For millennials (like myself), it is hard to remember what the media coverage of court trials was like before the O.J. Simpson trial.
Personally, watching the 1995 trial with my parents marks my first memory of a current event, the first time I paid attention to the “real” news (I was five, and their decision to let me watch with them was arguably questionable). It would be several years before I realized Simpson was famous for something other than a grizzly, all-consuming murder trial.
It wasn’t just that the Simpson trial engulfed the national attention. If not the first time case, it was one of the most significant ones to transform television viewers into jurors. “It did change the way people watched trials. For the first time, people dissected a trial,” said Karas. That was thanks to Court TV and CNN coverage that could track every mundane detail of the proceedings.
Trial coverage further encouraged viewers to play juror by including segments where legal analysts gave their opinion—i.e. the Nancy Grace and Greta Van Susteren types. “The anchors and hosts were allowed to create debate, and probably in the extreme. We started having more opinions, and that became more acceptable,” said Karas, though adding, “I never felt comfortable doing that as a journalist.”
Over the next twenty years, future trials would never hold the same national appeal as the O.J. Simpson trial. “It was the watershed, but it was also the zenith with our fascination,” said Tworek. Still, even though no case has quite met the stature of the Simpson trial, its long-term influence reverberated through future media coverage.
Transforming television viewers into jurors who were chomping at the bit to declare guilt or innocence drove the media coverage of the most sensationalized trials of the next 20 years: Scott Peterson, Casey Anthony, Jodi Arias.
Young women killing the lovers who jilted them; mothers killing children; husbands killing pregnant wives—the more morally outrageous the alleged crimes were, the more America ate them up. That fascination wasn’t new, but the ability to pull apart every little detail on TV and have cable analysts offer melodramatic, firebrand monologues was.
In fact, in the years following the Simpson verdict, sometimes the media made the trials. “Nancy Grace probably singlehandedly made the case of Casey Anthony. Between her arrest and murder, she did so many stories. She built the anticipation before the trials,” said Karas. Grace pejoratively nicknamed Anthony “Tot Mom” and declared “the devil is dancing” when she was found not guilty.
One of the more noticeable differences since Simpson’s trial is that more of the case that get the national spotlight are of young, white attractive women, like Anthony and Arias.
“In the past few years, there’s been a bit of a flip,” Tworek says of the switch in gender focus. “People are 100 percent addicted when white women are murderers. They are absolutely glued to the TV,” said Goldman.
The reasons for this focus aren’t wholly clear, except for the obvious: “People are attracted to prettier people. It’s always nice seeing someone pretty on TV,” said Goldman.
However, Karas questioned whether there really was a news trend towards focusing on white women. “Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony are good-looking white women, but I don’t know of any of any others. I don’t know if I agree [with the belief the media focuses on white women],” she said.
In fact, if the latest murder trial to come close to capturing the national attention—the Serial podcast—is any indicator, the pendulum has swung away from white women, and from tabloid-style coverage.
The trial of Adnan Syed is the most recent murder case to become water cooler fodder. It’s different from the cases of Simpson, Anthony, and Arias because the media scrutiny is coming retrospectively.
Syed was convicted of murdering ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999 with virtually no media fanfare at the time. Just as importantly, the new media scrutiny came in a slow, measured, and deeply detailed fashion that was completely absent of shouting matches or, ultimately, strong declarations of innocence or guilt by the guiding narrator, Sarah Koenig. In short, it has been covered in the opposite fashion of the Simpson trial.
The level of attention devoted to Simpson and Syed are hardly analogous, but there’s no doubt Syed’s trial has captured a highly disproportionate amount of attention for a podcast—in fact, his case drew enough attention that Serial became the most downloaded podcast of all time.
Syed has managed to penetrate media and pop cultural spheres far beyond the Serial series. Since Serial ended its run in early December, there have been tell-all-style interviews with state prosecutors and key witnesses, endless Reddit conspiracy threads, and an array of parodies.
The lines between entertainment and criminal justice have blurred yet again—and the media has been swift to criticize a series that explicitly or implicitly encourages its audience to play juror.
Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic asked if Serial listeners “are trawling through a grieving family’s pain as a form of entertainment?”
Koenig was slammed for her “white reporter privilege” and “stomping around communities that she clearly does not understand, digging up small, generally inconsequential details about the people inside of them,” as Jay Caspian King wrote in The Awl.
Though these are legitimate concerns, the fact that these questions are even asked today by news outlets reflects a keen and growing awareness of media responsibility that may have been lacking during the Simpson trial.
Despite the criticisms, the media coverage may enhance the clarity of the actual court proceedings for Syed and be doing some good. Asia McClain, a classmate of Syed’s who was a character to Serial listeners, submitted an affidavit on his behalf this week, stating she was with him in a local library at the same time the state claimed he murdered Lee.
In her affidavit, she states that she has “c[o]me to understand [her] importance to the case” and “needed to step forward and make [her] story known to the court system.”
While Syed’s appeal for post-conviction relief has been in the works for years—and reporters are holding vigil for the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to make its ruling—it is hard not to think McClain would have realized her importance without the renewed media scrutiny. In fact, McClain told TheBlaze she didn’t even know the state was arguing Syed had committed the murder during the time she recalled being with him until she listened to Serial.
The O.J. Simpson trial may have marked the birth of a new style of coverage that transformed trials into entertainment fodder and encouraged viewers to play juror. But, as the success of Serial shows, the media and the audience are maturing beyond the shouting, the moral grandstanding, and the quick judgments of the 24-hour news cycle into a slower, moderated approach to our obsession with the drama of a trial.