Race Rage and Denial: The Media and the O.J. Trials

Article excerpt

There were remarkable contrasts between the media coverage of the verdicts in the criminal trial of O. J. Simpson and the civil proceedings. The contrast was not in the amount of attention paid to either event, as the most astonishing aspect of this whole affair remains how permanently affixed these mostly inconsequential trials became to our daily television rituals. Instead, the contrast was between the reactions to the two verdicts and, by implication, the contrasting descriptions of how whites and African Americans viewed these cases. The coverage was marked by dramatic and questionable generalizations about the views of each community toward the trials, law enforcement, the justice system, and each other. The O.J. trials exposed the double standards of a media system obsessed by celebrity and unable to tackle the difficult issues raised by such events.

The most important facet of the O.J. saga, and the so called national dialogue on race which ensued, is how it high lighted the abject failure of the mainstream media to provide an effective and meaningful forum for public discussion of even the most basic information about our society and the world. But the media didn't fail simply because they are populated by a variety of elites and professionals who appeared content to merely keep track of every minute detail of the proceedings while preening and posturing for their audiences. The choices made in the coverage--to concentrate on individual personalities and downplay the interconnections between concepts like race, justice, and official corruption--were based upon a disastrous set of priorities that have increasingly animated news and public affairs programming in the mainstream media over the last two decades.

RAGE AND CELEBRATION

When the jury in the criminal trial re turned its verdict, the mainstream media resonated with a multitude of anecdotal images completing a script that had been hinting darkly about America's "racial divide" since the end of the Bronco chase. Some of the images were truly stirring and most were emotionally charged: African Americans were seen to be enmeshed in a jubilant celebration, while rooms full of crestfallen whites were presented to demonstrate what our most available commentators reported as the shocking and inviolable gap in perception between these two worlds. In turn, there quickly appeared a palpable sense of panic in some spheres of American society while in others there appeared to exist a feeling of retribution. At least that is what the torrent of imagery was supposed to suggest. Reality has since proven itself to be far more complex.

The intensity of the celebrations in African American communities was supposed to be in direct proportion to the "hidden rage" that has existed in these communities for decades. The marker of race relations most often cited as a possible parallel to the O.J. trial was the violent reaction to the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King. Many commentators worried that a guilty verdict in Simpson's criminal trial would provoke a similar reaction. But as Patricia J. Williams notes in a March 1995) Nation, the fact that these fearful predictions jostled for media space with official reports admitting to tremendous police corruption in the Bronx and Harlem went unnoticed. As Williams argues, the fear of black civil unrest and violence "reduces black anxiety about the justice system to superficial and singular television encounters" and "dangerously misreads the discontent of a significant population that is not merely disaffected but enraged, whose fury is barely reflected in the staggering rates of black criminalization and imprison meet."

But few picked up on Williams' sentiments. Instead, reporters seized on polling data which indicated the now cliche differences in perception between blacks and whites. These polls were cited repeatedly and became frozen in time: blacks said not guilty; whites said guilty. …