Moral Mutiny

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For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

It was probably only a matter of time before O.J. Simpson tried to cash in on the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, in 1994.

Perhaps he thought that, by now, people would have let bygones be bygones, that they would have tolerated his smug hypothesis that he might have actually killed them after all.

Equally delusional, apparently, was Rupert Murdoch's Fox television channel, and his publishing house, HarperCollins, which put up all sorts of money in the hope of making much more off the bloody deaths of two people, regardless of how debased and dirty the whole thing would seem.

But ultimately, after an avalanche of criticism, Murdoch's News Corporation yesterday canceled a television interview and a book in which Simpson was to describe how he might have done the deed.

My colleague David Zurawik wrote for this morning's paper that the highly unusual move of canceling both a heavily promoted book and a two-night primetime program on the eve of their appearance "suggests that there are still lines that the public doesn't want crossed, despite a conventional wisdom that says tabloid and reality TV have hopelessly debased popular culture in recent years."

"Murdoch's decision," Zurawik wrote, "underscores how the Simpson case continues to serve as a barometer of societal values more than a decade after the former football star's acquittal in criminal court of the murders of Brown and Goldman."

Simpson was held liable for the deaths in a civil case, although he apparently has yet to pay any of the $33 million judgement.

In the publishing world, it is rare for a book to be withdrawn before it has hit the market. Advance orders for Simpson's book, titled If I Did It, had been strong but not sensational, the Associated Press reported.

It's possible that the outrage over the Simpson project was a surprise to Murdoch, who began his career in the bowels of tabloid newspapers.

But the widespread opposition was a "grass-roots revulsion," said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. What's fascinating, he said, is that the O.J. Simpson trial "was a gaping wound in our society that had maybe healed over, and this threatened to reopen it."

"People were not supportive of him getting another bite at the apple."

Eric Deggans, media critic at the St. Petersburg Times, told me by phone that, for Fox, there was no way out of the mess.

"My hunch is that the commercial pressure got to be too great," Deggans said. "Advertisers probably declined to participate in the show no matter how big the ratings, and Fox was facing the embarrassment of having a sizable number of stations decline to air the show..."

"It was affecting the brand."

There was a similar groundswell of outrage over another Fox show, Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire, six years ago. The ostensibly wealthy Lothario had apparently been barred almost a decade earlier from going near a former fiancee who'd said her attempts to break off their engagement prompted him to assault her and threaten to kill her.

Fox was lambasted for demeaning the institution of marriage, and the network cancelled plans to re-run the show.

But many people would have tuned in had it been on, said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. And the same would have happened with the Simpson show.

"Even as they were being indignant, a lot of people would have watched it, and done so with a sense of righteous indignation," Thompson said. "How can you not watch something like that? You're a human being! You would have watched, and you would have felt superior."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan