We're coming up on the tenth anniversary this fall of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case. This means that, incredibly, over a decade has passed since that slow-speed chase in the white Bronco where we all held our breaths wondering if O.J. was going to blow his own brains out on live TV. I remember watching it in the Calabasas Sagebrush Cantina — the Bronco was on one screen, and the Lakers play-off was on the other. Nobody could take their eyes off either.
The racial controversy over O.J. Simpson began, of course, with the murder of a white woman and white man by a black suspect, but it was seen visually the minute the issues of Time and Newsweek first came out. It triggered a pull-back of a cover, an unprecedented action in the publishing history of news magazines. Here's what their initial June 27, 1994 issues first looked like:
Here's where it got interesting. Almost immediately after hitting the stands, Time was accused of racism by minority groups for its photographic alteration of the famous O.J. arrest photo. The editors defended their choice by saying that they had taken that creative license to show the shadow that had descended on his reputation that week. Illustrator Matt Mahurin was the one to alter the image, saying later that he "wanted to make it more artful, more compelling." Enough readers, however, said that they saw the white man stacking the deck by "demonizing" the black man, that Time did something it had never done before and has never done since. They issued a second cover and pulled the first one. Essentially this meant that only mail subscribers ever saw the first cover. Here they are side-by-side for your own inspection.
Most of us are very familiar with the story of O.J. Simpson — the famous athlete a criminal jury said didn't do it only to have a civil jury say he did just over a year later. Like the Los Angeles riots which preceded the arrest of O.J. by two years, this story said as much about the state of race relations in America as they did about the guilt or innocence of the accused. Before the racial overtone set in, however, coverage in these initial issues had a lot to do with the actual slow-speed chase. Here's the way Time started in both versions:
When asked how they could have let one of the most famous double-murder suspects in history slip away under their noses, the angry police commander and the tight-faced lawyer and the whole choir of commentators all said the same thing, without a trace of irony: "We never thought he would run."
Maybe people condense into their essential selves in crisis, and O.J. was one of the best runners in American football. Here's how Newsweek began their story:
The end, last week, was off-camera. After the bloody steps, the heart-rending funerals, the surreal chase through the twilight of Los Angeles, O.J. Simpson surrendered himself into the darkness his life has become. He was in the back seat of his best friend's Bronco, communing quietly with his cellular phone, his blue steel revolver and a picture of his children. As the police stood back, the shadows lengthened.
October 16 marks the ten-year anniversary of the verdict in the criminal trial — a news event almost as shocking for many as the crime itself. For now, though, this is the way it started.