PBS’s Pathetic O.J. Simpson Take: Outrage Over Racism, Not Denial of Justice

News & Politics

PBS recruited the late football star and (acquitted) double murderer O.J. Simpson into the American race wars. On the April 11 PBS NewsHour had an odd take on the death of Simpson, whose televised trial captivated America 30 years ago, bringing in Dave Zirin, sports editor for the aging hard-left magazine The Nation. Together, he and NewsHour reporter William Brangham used the famous trial not as an example of justice denied, but to portray America as a historic haven of anti-black racism.

Reporter William Brangham took us down that bloody memory lane before pivoting to the racial import of the trial.

The NewsHour’s expert source was the sports editor for the hard-left magazine The Nation, who in a series of repellent columns since October 7 condemned Israel but not Hamas for war crimes. He used the Simpson case as a ready means to condemn America as racist, even though the case itself featured a black man acquitted of a murder charge of which he was almost surely guilty. There certainly would be no condemnation of the majority-black jury acquitting a black football star of a crime he almost certainly committed.

Brangham acceded to Zirin’s left-wing viewpoint: “And yet, as you also document in your piece, that, for so many black Americans, this happening in Los Angeles, coming a couple of years after Rodney King and all of the revelations of racism in the L.A. Police Department, just seemed like, as you’re saying, the culmination, this sort of apex of racial animosity towards black people.”

Zirin naturally agreed, bringing up the then-recent Rodney King beating and verdict.

Then Brangham chided O.J. Simpson, not for his crimes, both proven and alleged, but for having “sort of steadfastly refused to talk about what it was like to be a black man in America” before his trial.

PBS NewsHour

4/11/24

7:15:01 p.m. (ET)

Geoff Bennett: O.J. Simpson, whose murder trial captivated international attention for months, died yesterday of cancer. His case dominated headlines during the ’90s and was a prime example of people’s fascination with celebrity and crime. But the trial was about much more than that, highlighting major fissures in America and one whose legacy is still discussed some decades later. William Brangham has our look.

William Brangham: He was a football Hall of Famer, one of the greatest running backs of his generation, who suffered a precipitous fall from grace.

O.J. Simpson’s legacy would forever be tarnished by the 1994 murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. They were repeatedly stabbed to death at her Los Angeles home two years after the Simpsons divorced. O.J. Simpson was charged in their killings after blood was found in his home and on his car.

Millions of Americans sat glued to their televisions, watching as Simpson fled in a white Ford Bronco on the Southern California freeway. Police trailed him for 60 miles. He was eventually arrested and put on trial.

The country was similarly riveted by the nine-month-long televised proceedings, transfixed by the grisly details, allegations of domestic violence, and what would become iconic closing arguments.

Johnnie Cochran, Former Attorney For O.J. Simpson: If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.

William Brangham: It would eventually be dubbed the trial of the century.

Christopher Darden, Prosecutor: He was also one hell of a great football player, but he’s still a murderer.

William Brangham: The case also further exposed the racism inside the Los Angeles police force. All along, Simpson maintained his innocence, and he was ultimately acquitted.

Woman: We, the jury, in the above-entitled action, find the Defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder in violation of penal code section 187.

William Brangham: Two years later, a civil suit filed by the victims’ families found Simpson liable for their deaths.

His assets were seized, and he was ordered to pay over $33 million in damages. They were never fully paid. It was all a stark contrast to his younger days. Hailed as one of the nation’s top athletes, in the 1960s, Simpson was a decorated football star, an all-American at the University of Southern California. He was awarded the Heisman Trophy in 1968.

And the next year, he was the number one draft pick, taken by the Buffalo Bills, where he went on to play nine seasons and was a five-time All-Pro. Simpson parlayed his fame and trademark charm into a successful career on screen, most famously as the pitchman for Hertz rental cars in the 1970s. He went on to act on TV and in movies, like in the late 80s slapstick “The Naked Gun.”

Well after the murder trials, Simpson had another run-in with the law. He was convicted of armed robbery and other felonies and served nine years in prison for stealing sports memorabilia in Las Vegas. He claimed the goods had originally been stolen from him.

O.J. Simpson, Former NFL Player: I have done my time. I’d just like to get back to my family and friends. And, believe it or not, I do have some real friends.

William Brangham: Simpson’s family said he died Wednesday after battling prostate cancer. O.J. Simpson was 76 years old.

O.J. Simpson’s trial and his initial acquittal was an enormous moment of reckoning for many, exposing another stark racial fissure in America, in particular, the chasm between how Black and white Americans saw the police and the justice system. The trial also underscored glaring issues in how we view domestic violence, interracial marriage and the growing culture of media celebrity. Dave Zirin wrote about all of this in a piece in “The Nation” today titled: “O.J. Simpson was a Rorschach test for America.”

And he joins me now.

Dave Zirin, great to see you again on the “NewsHour.”

You write in your piece — quote — “If anyone had illusions that the United States was in fact united, the O.J. Simpson trial and subsequent verdict quickly put an end to that.”

Remind us what the country experienced that day when that not guilty verdict came down.

Dave Zirin, “The Nation”: Wow, I remember it like it was yesterday. That’s how powerful a moment it was in the American psyche.

And what it revealed is that this country could have one common experience, watching this trial, and draw entirely different conclusions from it.

And it exposed that when it comes to the United States of America, there really is nothing united about it. White people experience particularly the criminal justice system and police one way, and Black people experience it in a different way.

And out of that, you get a white opinion out of the O.J. Simpson verdict that this was one of the great injustices of the 20th century, that someone just got away literally with a double homicide.

And then, on the other side, in Black America, there was an overwhelming belief that the police were corrupt, that O.J. Simpson was railroaded, and that the entire situation stank so much of racism and tainted testimony that there is no way there should have been a conviction. And so, therefore, the jury’s decision was just.

So, what it really revealed was that you can have a common experience, but, then, at the end of the day it’s viewed an entirely different ways based upon the color of your skin.

William Brangham: Going back to that issue of how a lot of white Americans saw it, you write how O.J. being acquitted, to many, seemed like this is an example of a rich celebrity being able to buy and assemble this dream team that gets him past all of this evidence and gets him acquitted.

Do you think that is how a lot of people saw that?

Dave Zirin: Oh, at the time, the discussion about O.J.’s ability to hire this incredible dream team of attorneys led by the legendary Johnnie Cochran, not to mention people like F. Lee Bailey, Barry Scheck, a group of people who everybody knew in legal circles coming together, people said at the time, a lot of people, this is not justice.

Even Chris Rock had a line in his stand-up act that said, if O.J. Wasn’t a rich celebrity with these lawyers, he’d be known as or Orenthal, the white lady killer. And that was a stark statement. But it was once something that was widely seen in the culture that, wow, if O.J. is found innocent, it’ll be because he hired the best that money could buy.

William Brangham: And yet, as you also document in your piece, that, for so many Black Americans, this happening in Los Angeles, coming a couple of years after Rodney King and all of the revelations of racism in the L.A. Police Department, just seemed like, as you’re saying, the culmination, this sort of apex of racial animosity towards Black people.

Dave Zirin: Absolutely. I mean, and the police chief, the former police chief by 1995, Daryl Gates, there was a very militarized approach to policing in what were called anti-gang initiatives in the Black community. And that led to a great deal of violence and a great deal of mistrust, which is why, after the Rodney King beating, nobody in L.A. really saw it as just a Rodney King story, but as emblematic of how Black people and brown people were treated by Daryl Gates’ police department.

And that’s just in 1992. So the city is actually still rebuilding by 1994, when the trial begins. And so it’s not like it was some distant memory. It was part of a continuum for many people of a racist and out-of-control police department.

And then when there were revelations in the trial of legitimate police misconduct, that only sealed the deal for a lot of folks who thought to themselves, I’m not sure if O.J. Simpson can get a fair trial in the city and county of Los Angeles.

William Brangham: Right. And this all comes, as you also write that it’s ironic, in a way, that O.J. Simpson was the vehicle through which we start to even see this in its sharpest form, because, all throughout his career, he sort of steadfastly refused to talk about what it was like to be a Black man in America.

Dave Zirin: Yes, O.J. consciously positioned himself commercially as somebody who would be different from civil rights figures at the intersection of sports and Black politics, people like Jim Brown, for example.

O.J. Simpson was not going to be that. He was not going to be somebody who raised a fist on the medal stand at any ceremony. He was going to be O.J. Simpson. Like he liked to say to reporters very famously: “I’m not Black. I’m O.J.”

And positioning himself commercially that way meant that there was a great distance between O.J. Simpson and the Black community. But as was said quite often in 1995, when O.J. was arrested and put on trial, that was when he and a lot of other people discovered that he was, in fact, a Black man in the United States.

William Brangham: Dave Zirin of “The Nation,” always great to talk to you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Dave Zirin: Thank you for having me.

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