Posted on May 26, 1997 in Washington Watch
Three years after the grotesque murder of his ex-wife and a friend, the O.J. Simpson business is still booming.
From the very outset, the O.J. Simpson story was an American business saga. It was made by money and it was about money.
O.J. Simpson was a creation of the U.S. commercial culture. Like so many other athletes, he was transformed by this culture into a commodity to be sold and, in turn, to be used to sell products to others.
The O.J. Simpson that the public came to know was the kind, soft-spoken witty O.J. While it had been his athletic prowess that brought him into the public eye, the media created image of O.J. that sustained him and continued to generate millions in commercial resources.
The murder of his ex-wife threatened to bring about the collapse of the O.J. Simpson enterprise. Despite being acquitted in the criminal trial, Simpson emerged a damaged product. Most Americans (predominately white Americans) believed that he killed his wife and the friend and was only found not guilty because his highly-paid team of lawyers confounded the prosecution and shredded their case against Simpson.
American justice allowed the families of the murdered victims another trial. This was a civil trial where the families could sue Simpson for the damage and suffering they believe he caused. Because this type of trial operated by different rules, it allowed the families to introduce evidence and information that was not allowed in the criminal proceeding. In this case the families succeeded and a jury found Simpson guilty and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages to the families of his ex-wife and her friend, Ron Goldman.
Simpson’s attorneys have argued that their client’s career is in ruins and he can not pay that amount of money. Last week an appeals court ruled against Simpson and ordered him to pay the damages.
While one could hope that the appeals court decision would bring an end to this three year old sordid saga, the O.J. story remains alive and well. O.J. may be damaged, with his carefully crafted media image in tatters. But the O.J. business did not collapse. O.J. has become a money-making machine for others who exploit their involvement in his case.
In the beginning this was about O.J. the star who sold products and made money for himself and for those whose products he sold. The O.J. enterprise has now been transformed into O.J. the fallen star whose story is making money for those who exploit his demise.
O.J. was a creature of television. This medium made him and it exploited its creation well. So it should be no surprise that television extensively exploited the story of his demise during the past three years.
One recent study showed that the three major television network half-hour news programs have devoted over 3,000 minutes of precious news time to the O.J. case during the past three years. NBC-TV “Nightly News”, for example, featured the O.J. case as its lead story 73 times during this period.
Two smaller networks, (CNN and Court TV) carried the entire O.J. trial live everyday.
The U.S. media’s fixation with its own creation reached its most absurd level last January when the verdict was announced in the O.J. civil trial. The jury rendered its verdict just as the President of the United States was about to deliver the State of the Union message to U.S. Congress and the public.
While all of the major networks decided to run the President’s address (although some of the minor networks did not), they did so apologetically. And when the verdict came, all of the networks flashed the verdict across the television screen while the President was speaking.
The nation’s print media did much the same. The day after the State of the Union/O.J. verdict, both the New York Times and the Washington Post gave greater prominence to the O.J. story then they did to the President’s address.
The U.S.’s leading news weekly magazines (Time, Newsweek, etc.) featured O.J. as their cover story more than twenty times. And the nation’s leading tabloid featured the case on their front page 88 times!
The result of this excessive media fixation on this case was that the public, even those who, at first, were not interested in O.J. or his sordid life, became drawn into its web. In the beginning O.J. business was the media-created image of O.J. and its ability to sell products, now it has become the case itself, and its ability to make money.
O.J.’s own career may be over as a result of the ugly double murders of which he stands accused, but his case has created careers new for others.
Simpson’s lead defense attorney now has his own television show as does the lead prosecuting attorney. Both lawyers and others associated with the case also makes tens of thousands of dollars per appearance on the lecture circuit. All told, about twenty individuals (lawyers, witnesses, and friends) have become wealthy due to their proximity to the case. And across the U.S. dozens of other lawyers and television commentators have also been able to exploit the case as analysts on television and radio or as hosts of shows that focused in discussing the O.J. case.
Another important product coming out of this O.J. enterprise has been a virtual library of books. Over forty books have already been published about the case—the first one was in stores less than two weeks after the murder. Nineteen of these books have even made it on the New York Times “Best Sellers” list. Even O.J. Simpson himself has sought to exploit his notoriety. In the early stages of the trial O.J. released a book recounting his side of the story and immediately following his acquittal in the criminal proceedings, released a video attesting to his innocence.
This week, three years after the murder three books are still on the list and there are more best-sellers to come. O.J.’s prosecutor, Marcia Clark, signed a book contract earlier this year for $4.2 million. And O.J.’s last girlfriend has received $3 million to write her book.
To understand how big this O.J. business has become, George Bush, only received $1 million to write his memoirs.
And so it goes on, the O.J. business is still booming. From the beginning it was a story about what the commercial culture could create and exploit—and it still is.
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