DANIEL VAUGHAN: O.J. Simpson (1947 - 2024) And The Murder Trial That Created Modern Culture

 April 12, 2024

There was no escaping it. From the moment O.J. Simpson's white Ford Bronco police chase hit television screens across the country, his case and trial captivated everyone in a way no other case could. In the process, the Simpson trial created modern reality television and elevated news and a murder trial into the universal entertainment of all, giving us the contemporary news cycle.

When local news feeds went national on Friday, June 17, 1994, people across America were captivated by the scene of O.J. Simpson going down the California interstate with police cars right behind him. Theories of whether he would kill himself in the vehicle rippled across the airways. More than 95 million Americans were tuned in to the chase, and it's ending. Domino's Pizza set a record for sold pizzas, recording its busiest day in company history.

Over a year later, when the verdict was read in court, television coverage peaked, with 150 million people watching as Simpson was acquitted. For reference, the highest-ranked Super Bowl had 115 million viewers. The most-watched television episode in history, the final episode of MASH, had 106 million. The first question Russian President Boris Yeltsin asked Bill Clinton in 1995 was whether O.J. committed the crime. Margaret Thatcher was equally enthralled by it.

All these anecdotes are small pieces of the nuclear bomb explosion the O.J. Simpson trial had on America. Everyone watched it, everyone had an opinion, and there was no escape.

2024 marks the 30th anniversary of the car chase, the day American culture was changed. A decade ago, Lila made a compelling argument that the Simpson trial was the moment modern reality television was born. And that was a twofold observation. First, the "trial of the century" captivated everyone, bringing real life to television in a way few knew before.

Second, all the popular "reality T.V. stars" who have dominated the airwaves since then have connections to the Simpson trial. The Kardashians are the easiest to connect to O.J. Simpson. Some even believe Khloe Kardashian is really O.J. Simpson's daughter. Beyond them, you also have Paris Hilton and Lauren Conrad, who were also connected to the trial stars.

The neighborhood Simpson lived in had another notable connection: "Bernard Lewinsky called Brentwood home, too, for that matter, only no one cared yet because his daughter, Monica, wouldn't land that fateful internship until July of '95."

Each of them built their lives on the central realization of every television execution during the Simpson trial: it was pure entertainment for Americans. It was trashy television, for sure. No one admitted anything good from what was on the screen. But in the same breath, people refused to pull their eyes away.

People may have even been ashamed of their fascination with the case. But that's always the case with the first of its kind to hit Americans. As Lili Anolik writes, "Now it's Twinkies and Coca-Cola for every meal because, hey, Twinkies and Coca-Cola taste good, and because, hey, why not? Vanished, as well, apparently are any bases for judgment. Honey Boo Boo "trends" in the same way that Barack Obama "trends." There's no difference between the two. Or, rather, we're no longer capable of telling what that difference might be. Famous is famous."

The lessons never let go: elevating the news to pure entertainment worked. CNN's Larry King took his career to new heights. Numerous other news television personalities exploded onto the scene and were also seen as bona fide stars. You have to wonder whether Trump can build his political career without the Simpson trial and the explosion of reality television.

News executives tried for years to replicate the O.J. Simpson trial. They got a smaller taste a few years later when Bill Clinton was impeached. But nothing ever came as close to O.J. Simpson in captivating the audience. That changed in 2016, when they got the first reality television President.

The O.J. Simpson trial hit every single flashpoint in America. It supercharged the development of reality television, true crime shows, and more. The legendary Johnny Cochran was able to effectively attack the LAPD because they were only a few years removed from the Rodney King riots. That ignited race-relation debates country-wide.

O.J. Simpson's trial touched every facet of society. For all his accomplishments on the football field, in movies, and elsewhere, his legacy will forevermore be linked with the double-murder trial in which he was acquitted.

Beyond the trial, O.J. Simpson gave birth to modern reality television and news as entertainment. News anchors and pundits saw themselves elevated into stars in their own right, beyond the name recognition of people like Walter Cronkite.

Lili Anolik concludes her piece with this, "It's like the standards and mores and customs of a very particular set of people living in a very particular section of Los Angeles—the standards and mores and customs of Nicole and Ron, of Kato and Faye and Paula and Kris, of O.J., too—have turned into the standards and mores and customs of a nation."

It's hard to disagree with that in the social media age. American society fundamentally changed 30 years ago with a police chase, and we're living in the world created by the O.J. Simpson trial.

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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