Over here on the populism part of this blog, this April will be about 1994.
Before there was new media, there was news media, and it had a genuine seriousness and sobriety. I speak of the post-World War II journalism credos and ethos that dominated TV and major newspapers from Edward R. Murrow to Woodward and Bernstein to The Big Three (Brokaw, Rather, and Jennings) to the start of CNN. You, you the American taxpayer, owned the airwaves just like you own Yosemite and Yellowstone, and that meant an obligation for accurate information that the major networks used to take rather seriously. When did that all end? Well, you can’t exactly put one date on it, but if you could, that date would be June 17, 1994.
Let’s face it, salacious, gossipy stories had plenty of followers even during the days of Watergate. The New York Post had a readership. The historian Daniel J. Boorstin would have called most Post stories “pseudo-events,” meaning they had little to no significance outside themselves: “The celebration is held, photographs are taken, the occasion is widely reported.” But in the pre-internet days, the Post was the only Brit-style pseudo-event peddler outside the laughable National Enquirer and Weekly World News. Sure, the occasional Leona Helmsley, Bernhard Goetz, or girl trapped in a well could lead broadcasts and newspaper headlines for a few days. Yet afterward, we returned to the seriousness of national affairs. After all, we had at minimum two ongoing existential crises: our economy never really got back to its pre-OPEC, pre-1973 hum, and there was a Cold War happening which threatened to extinguish all life in a matter of minutes.
You might have thought that after the Berlin Wall fell, American media would have taken a victory lap and just parked itself in front of sports, sitcoms, and sex scandals. But the Soviets were still a Union when Saddam Hussein decided to take Kuwait in August 1990. There was no time for partying like it was 1999 when George H.W. Bush was talking about a “new world order” and mobilizing hundreds of thousands of troops on the Saudi border. For the first time since 1941, the US Congress was declaring war, and the media (and, fair to say, the nation) braced itself for, at minimum, a Korean War-like experience that would suck up years of blood and treasure. It’s hard to understand now, but when the war ended with a lopsided victory six weeks after it began, it was like, oh, okay media, well you got our attention: now what?
Last week I wrote that September 22-28, 1991 was probably the most important single week in pop culture since 1964. The week of February 28 to March 6 may have been the most important single week in national affairs since Kennedy was killed: the Gulf War ended almost before it began (bye-bye Vietnam Syndrome!), and a black man named Rodney King was videotaped being badly beaten by LAPD officers. This was the real beginning of the media’s early 90s, and it was a time of earnest, soul-of-America-searching coverage for the national press. It says something that Time made Ted Turner (and by proxy, CNN) its “Man of the Year” for 1991; it was quite the newsy, non-pseudo year, from the Gulf to King to the real end of the Cold War (Gorbachev held hostage, Yeltsin standing on a tank) to Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas to Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement. The real proof of the new (and news) seriousness was the populism that animated both Ross Perot’s and Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaigns. Somehow, Clinton survived three tabloid-esque “scandals” – an affair with Gennifer Flowers, the disingenuous “I didn’t inhale” marijuana protest, and a draft-dodging letter – any one of which would have torpedoed a candidate in the Gary Hart days of only four years before. Was this proof of media insistence on the real issues, or proof of media bias in favor of Democrats? Perhaps a bit of both – which would prove consequential by late 1994.
In 1992 and 1993, however, from non-pseudo-event to non-pseudo-event – the Rodney King riots, the Presidential debates, the first WTC bombing, the Waco siege, “don’t ask don’t tell,” the Oslo accords, the Russian parliament in revolt, Serbia, Somalia, NAFTA, tax increases, universal health care – the press, led by the major city dailies and the anchors at ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and CNN, led Americans to thoughtful, illuminating coverage that you don’t see in today’s shoutfests. Strange as it seems now, Americans didn’t really watch trials before the 1990s – for one thing, there wasn’t a channel for them. Court TV began in 1991 (for only 3 million subscribers); it and the syndicated Hard Copy and Inside Edition picked at the void left by the rather sober national news. In the early 90s, William Kennedy Smith and the Menendez brothers did occasionally jump from Hard Copy and Inside Edition to the national press, but not for very long, perhaps because the accused weren’t famous before their crimes.
All of that changed when one man in a white Ford Bronco put a gun to his head on the afternoon of June 17, 1994. Last week I described how, in April 1994, one man’s gun to his head pivoted pop music from the early 90s to the late 90s. The two months between that horrible suicide and a certain other double-murder were already transitional, consequential ones for America’s “sober” media, most evident in its coverage of events in Africa. After perhaps dooming America’s attempts at exporting democracy to Somalia six months before (by broadcasting fallen soldiers dragged through the streets), the US press had a choice in April 1994: show the thousand-person-long, snaking queues that represented the first South African enfranchisement and the election of Nelson Mandela, or show an unthinkable genocide in Rwanda. Could they have shown both? Perhaps. But they – the sober press – (mostly) only dispatched reporters to South Africa. By the time the millionth Rwandan had been killed, in other words by June 1994, careful discourse had reigned long enough (and in this, the press around Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding from the February 1994 Olympics can be considered transitional); the national media was ready for a break from all this Africa-Russia-NAFTA-Hillarycare seriousness by the time Nicole Brown Simpson’s body hit the front steps of her home.
You might ask, how do current US history books – you know, the ones that include 9/11 – treat the O.J. Simpson story? Some of them don’t, which seems a touch naïve. Before I go there, just how important was the gun to the head of which I speak? Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker writer and big legal analyst on every network, argues in his book The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson that the Bronco “chase” precipitated a tabloid murder into an international incident. Toobin says that the nation was “astonished” at the live spectacle of a well-loved media personality and superlative running back…ah, running. Toobin reports that 95 million Americans watched at least some of the “chase” – more people than had watched that year’s Super Bowl (though less than the record-breaking, record-holding 142 million who would watch the verdict on October 3, 1995). Toobin goes on about blacks eventually holding up signs that said “Go O.J.!” compared to whites’ indifference. Linda Williams complicates this by mentioning young white male enthusiasm (e.g. signs that said “The Juice is Loose!”), and the facts that police were not cheered by anyone and women did not cheer for anyone. Personally, on the day, though I wanted to see the interrupted NBA Finals (NBC couldn’t have just broadcast the game and let the other networks do the chase? No. It could not), I gave the press a break: this is a famous man with AR-10 rifles pointed to his head on the freeway! How could you not cover that? Little did I know I was letting a friend crash on my couch for one night that would turn into 16 months.
Before we go there, note the sports-iness of (what screenwriters call) the inciting incident: interrupting the first non-Michael Jordan NBA Finals in four years, yet clearly after Jordan had brought millions of fans into the game, this celebrity-athlete chase was clearly marked as a sports story – meaning it was about both meanings of the word “race” – from the word Go. Americans are sports fans or they aren’t, they use sports as escape valve of the drudgery of life or they use something else, but because Simpson chose not to shoot himself that day, because Simpson chose not to make himself one more black male casualty (from Watts to Rwanda), both groups were stuck with O.J. as their inescapable valve and value for the next 16 months. Anyway, I’m not writing this to second-guess who really killed Ron and Nicole, or how we should have behaved during that time; I’m just saying that the O.J. trial both reflected and changed a nation.
Make no mistake: we were the United States of O.J. from June 1994 to October 1995 – our days outside our own lives barely went beyond Judge Ito, Kato Kaelin, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Mark Fuhrman, Marcia Clark, Christopher Durden, the Goldman family, the Brown family, etc. etc. Any time you tried to tune it out (personally, I left the country), it was right back in your face. O.J. America encompassed every issue of our national identity – the original racist arguments against integration (oh no, our white blond women with black men?), special treatment for the best athletes, the biggest tension between wealth and populism (if you’re rich enough, can you get away with murder?). Unlike Kennedy Smith or the Menendez brothers or anything else, the story morphed from a blotter-page murder to a pseudo-event to something beyond Boorstin, beyond postmodernism: an imposed event in every American’s life, as close to them as losing or gaining a house or a spouse. More to the point of this post, O.J.-related news led every headline and the first five minutes of every broadcast for more than a year. Just last week (you know, in 2014) on the radio, Dan Rather was talking about the corrosive ongoing effects of the O.J. circus. In the 20 years since, the media has never again been given quite that juicy a bone to gnaw on – but that hasn’t stopped it from trying. The mainstream press Hard Copied itself – making Hard Copy itself obsolete and off the air in 1999. Court TV expanded; Judge Judy began in 1996.
What was the news media like after O.J.? It was paparazzi-based, to the point of (maybe) killing Princess Diana. It was Viagra and Titanic and a Tommy Lee-Pamela Anderson sex tape. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, basically ending the old public-airwaves-responsibility thing, directing the old media to new corporate priorities. Fox News started right up, and Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern hit new national strides. And truly serious affairs – like the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, like Kosovo in 1999 – didn’t seem as important as they would have in 1993. That’s why the Republicans were brilliant to set a perjury trap for Bill Clinton by forcing him to get on the videotaped record about Paula Jones. They didn’t know about Monica Lewinsky yet – if anything, they knew Clinton had proved scandal-bulletproof in 1992! But what they also knew was that post-O.J. America wasn’t 1992. If they could force the appearance of impropriety, they could trust the post-O.J. media to let any so-called scandal dominate headlines for months. They panned and struck gold with Lewinsky. Sure, Clinton wasn’t quite thrown out of office, but they certainly derailed the hell out of Clinton’s second term (outside of that whole budget-deficit-to-surplus thing).
Maybe a lot of this was coming with the internet anyway; maybe not. But more importantly, Linda Williams goes on to discuss the dual aftermaths of the King and Simpson trials: “black outrage at the 1991 [sic] ‘white’ verdict that found the police in the Rodney King beating not guilty ended in riots that left much of South Central L.A. decimated. White outrage at the 1995 ‘black’ verdict finding Simpson not guilty ended in a more law-abiding, but no less devastating, sort of indirect violence: the abandonment of the moral need to redress the wrongs of blacks, whether by voting for Newt Gingrich, moving away from the city, or ending affirmative action. [She means welfare reform.] In both cases, black people, and black neighborhoods, have suffered the more serious consequences.” When the news media turned to fluff and shouting, it left the gravitas of the early 90s behind, something that would only come back (in a more limited way) on a certain Tuesday in September 2001. When the Juice stayed loose, the networks and national papers loosened their standards, and in turn, all of ours. When O.J. refused to spill, they spilled away their own credibility from the old Walter Cronkite days. And that’s…the way it is.
Next week: Part 3: Domestic Politics