“It is so difficult to draw a clear line of separation between the abuse and the wholesome use of the press, that as yet we have found it better to trust the public judgment, rather than the magistrate, with the discrimination between truth and falsehood. And hitherto the public judgment has performed that office with wonderful correctness.” –Thomas Jefferson to M. Pictet
It was a spectacle begging for a stage: A talented former athlete living in upscale urbia, a beautiful estranged girlfriend and her new boyfriend brutally murdered, enough forensic evidence to make any prosecutor giddy and cause any defense to despair and raise their rates.
The bloody details blew across the headlines and TV screens when an absurd and unforgettable low-speed “chase” of the suspect Mr. Simpson by an army of law enforcement on land and in the air. The media hadn’t seemed to care too much prior to the absurdities on that day, with only short and infrequent updates, the juicer, more sensational headlines being reserved to supermarket tabloids. But when the mass media brought the absurd to the front page and the tabloid headline became the Times’ headline, a new market was found, a new popular need was discovered, and the gaudy bloody spectacle previously seen on this scale only in the Roman Coliseum became the new spectator sport of media consumers across America and the world.
Media is a business, they survive by showing consumers what they want to see. When media was more homogeneous in the days before the Internet, they used their hegemony to control what consumers saw and learned about the rest of the world. If the consumer did not want to see what was being shown them on the network news shows, they could switch to Fresh Prince or the Cosby Show. But true information regarding the state of the world was limited to what the network executives decided could or should be shown.
We can’t blame the Simpson frenzy on political correctness. If political correctness had been brought very strongly to bear in the media handling of the case, it would’ve been deemed a non-event, not worthy of our watching, or we would’ve been treated to a never-ending line of sycophantic apologists telling why Mr. Simpson was innocent or not responsible. The first result would’ve been a good thing in that Mr. Simpson and those involved in the case would have more likely received true justice. In the latter case, further disservice and damage would have been done to cause of true equality as many would see the defense of a guilty man as the American Black trying at all costs to protect one of their own from a just punishment. A society deserves and receives respect when they show they can police and control their own, not just protect. The beast we call Political Correctness is one of the last bastions of true Racism in America (Now is not the place for a discussion of Racism, read instead the book Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, and see how his views of the process required to bring true equality to the Black American dovetails with the ideas and words of Marting Luther King).
It is the increasingly voyeuristic tendencies and appetites of the American populace that have fed what is now a pervasive coverage of the lives of popular people: the pretty, the rich, the famous, mostly undeserving of any such inspection. These circuses which our courtrooms have become owe much of the impulse of their transformation to the sensational, tabloid-like coverage of the increasingly immoral upper class by the Mass Media.
The victims of this new world are many and unfortunate. First, the victims of the actual crime. As their lives are invaded, what used to be private pains shared usually by at most a community have become very, very public. While this has some good effect in that it serves to draw people together, it causes greater harm in that the community which was actually hurt by the crime is not allowed its own healing. Media has a long memory bred by its never ending thirst for more content, and gives significance to events with little universal significance initially. For years after the fact we hear the familiar phrase on the evening news “X years ago today…” and the key players and experts and totally unrelated persons seeking only “face time” are trotted out again and asked to relive what to them may well have been quite a horror. The community may have gotten over the real hurt and damage, but they are forced to relive and dwell again on possibly heinous wrongs. Or it causes the creation of permanent victims. We do not hear about the survivors of Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi where the storm struck with greater fury and the damage was significantly greater than the damage from the same storm in New Orleans. These people, working quietly and together have rebuilt their lives without the eyes of the entire world staring through the forced perspective of one-eyed monsters on tripods run by the media. With little fanfare and less public complaint they’ve put their lives back together, free of the constant worrying of just how they’d come out of this by talking heads ensconced thousands of miles from the destruction in towers of stone and steel in New York. So private pains become public fare, and people who would move on are held forever in the perpetual glass case of the past.
Another victim of this theatrification of the Justice System are the accused themselves. Public sentiment is aroused by ceaseless coverage which, in its constant search for more content, eagerly grasps any rumor, broadcasting the lies and the truth with equal alacrity. Character assassinations occur daily, without thought to the victims guilt or innocence. Consider the case of the Duke University La Crosse players accused of rape and various other terrible things. The tale of one person was automatically believed and given credence over the lives of several other humans, before the case was even opened. With little or no apparent thought of the possible innocence of the accused, even in the face of several oddities and inconsistencies in the accusers testimony and life, the accused futures have been forever tarnished. Innocence is presumed until guilt is proven is the official policy of our judicial system. But in the court of public opinion it seems the prosecutor, judge and jury are all the same, the decisions are reached quickly, and there is no appeal.
A third group which is wronged by the New American Judicial System is a large one: us. It is ironic that we, the most active participants in the wrong, are also some of its most desperate victims. Initially limited to those with time and the inclination to watch daytime TV talk shows, a fascination with others lives can be unhealthy. Is our own life so hopeless, so featureless and futureless that we must live voyeuristicly and vicariously through others? Everybody, to a greater or lesser extent, lives vicariously at times, and this can be healthy and good. Enjoying others successes and joys, empathizing in their sorrows and struggling alongside in their failures are necessary processes of life in healthy families, communities and societies. But to revel, as in bloodsport, in the sordid details of others lives for no greater purpose than voyeurism is to cheapen both the voyeur and the viewed. This is perhaps but one more example of the problem in America where we know more about the people on the other coast than we know about our own neighbors.
Now we have a constant view into the most intimate details of peoples lives, celebrity lawsuits, scandals, Jacko and OJ. The less celebrity driven and perhaps more pretty-face and loveable-person driven spectacle of Lacey and Connor Petersons murder. Few, if any, doubt OJ’s guilt in his case but through the circus that his trial became a grievous disservice and terrible wrong was done to the victims, Mr. Simpson himself, and the American people, as justice tripped and fell during its act in the main ring of the New American Circus.