Trial and Error

Black journalists critique the O.J. media circus

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As the O.J. Simpson murder trial drags on, the American public appears to be divided along racial lines when it comes to assessing Simpson's guilt. According to a recent Harris poll, 60 percent of whites believe that Simpson killed Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. When the same poll asked African Americans for their opinion on the matter, only 12 percent of those polled believe he committed the crimes.

One reason for this apparent division may be, as Patricia J. Williams notes in The Nation (March 13, 1995), that the white-owned mainstream media has managed to transform the public's craving for catharsis into a tragedy of ignorance. The soap opera atmosphere brought to the trial by the major media outlets makes black anxiety about the justice system into a spectacle and ignores the day-to-day experience of blacks. 'These are not times for easy prescriptions,' Williams says, 'but when the executives of Entertainment Tonight are THIS exuberant, one has to wonder if justice hasn't been just a wee bit seduced by the thrill of the hunt.'

Another reason for the division may be that the African-American press has stood practically alone in providing a historical and political context from which to understand the case. As Jeffrey Toobin noted in a recent issue of The New Yorker (July 17, 1995), black papers like the Los Angeles Sentinel, have been reporting the story as the struggle of a black man searching for justice in a white judicial system from the outset. The black press has also been printing a running critique of the mainstream media's mishandling of the case. Not long ago, the Pittsburgh Courier ran a banner headline reading 'NEWS MEDIA SKILLFULLY PAINTING O.J. SIMPSON AS AN UGLY AMERICAN.'

An awareness of, and intolerance for, racism separates black press coverage from the superficial treatment the trial has received in the mainstream media. And it's not surprising that this division carries over to the Internet, where the promise of alternative viewpoints is a double-edged sword. The sickeningly racist treatment of the case on The Official Unofficial O.J. Simpson Web Page testifies to the extreme stupidity that the Net allows room for, featuring an animation of Simpson morphing into a demon, as well as a number of racial slurs spattered through the rest of the page.

In an effort to provide a space on the Web for thoughtful consideration of the trial, Vibe Magazine and Meanderings, a monthly electronic journal of politics, art, and culture from an African-American perspective, are collaborating on Squeezin' the O.J. Hype!. In a compelling critique of the media's penchant for creating symbols out of black men, author Mike Bowen contends that from from Willie Horton (crime) and Clarence Thomas (sexual harassment) to Mike Tyson (rape) and Rodney King (drunk driving) and now O.J. (spousal abuse), 'we needed a black face to imprint on America's consciousness so deeply that it could never forget...In the end, their effect is merely symbolic. O.J. didn't pay my tuition, Clarence didn't pinch my sister, Colin didn't shoot my friend, homeboy didn't steal my 401(k). I have a choice as to what symbols affect me and my bookshelves are a lot bigger than my TV.'

Original to Utne Reader Online, August 1995.

Patricia J. Williams, 'America and the Simpson Trial,' THE NATION (March 13, 1995).

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