To the Times:
I was sampling Fox News this Monday morning in between watching my usual CNN and MSNBC programming, and it finally struck me what the main difference was between Fox and virtually every other news station. CNN and MSNBC were covering the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump’s recent press conference on same, the economy, and the unemployment rate. On Fox, Sen. Lindsey Graham had just espoused a conspiracy theory regarding the FBI and the Steele dossier that was the foundation for the special counsel inquiry into collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia. This was followed with legal experts and commentary opining on potential investigations and charges against current FBI Director Christopher Wray. The news coverages couldn’t have been more different.
Aside from politics, might a different coverage affect other aspects of life as well? Let’s look at America’s legal justice system; specifically, the 1995 O.J. Simpson double-murder trial. Remember, that “not guilty” verdict was considered the greatest legal travesty for the most widely televised trial in history. I confess that I watched my fair share of it in real time on television. Many of us first learned of the brutal slashing murders of Ronald Goldman and Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown, as we watched the 90-minute slow-speed chase of Simpson in his white Ford Bronco by a convoy of police cars and choppers north of Los Angeles prior to the trial. It was reported that Simpson was suicidal riding in the back seat with his friend Al Cowlings driving, and that’s why the police were hesitant to make a more speedy arrest. Now, no one wants to prejudge anyone, and we didn’t want to believe it, but Simpson sure looked guilty as hell. Then, months later, lead attorney Johnny Cochran made his opening statement. He would turn everything on its head by claiming he would show irrefutable proof, with witnesses even, demonstrating O.J.’s innocence. It left me hopeful that Simpson, “the Juice,” a likable former collegiate and pro football hero, now tragic middle aged man, might be innocent.
But every serious legal analyst trumpeted a “mountain of evidence” against him. There were bloody gloves, DNA, footprints, the weird Ford Bronco chase, an opportunistic timeline, prior history of threats and abuse, as well as motive, means and opportunity. Many critical books were written on this trial. Vincent Bugliosi, the Charles Manson lead prosecutor, would write “Outrage” — a description of the way he (and I) felt when the jury ignored the evidence and voted not guilty. As this verdict was announced, my office mates and I were struck openmouthed in astonishment. We would see O.J. himself react with disbelief, as well as the same reaction from his friend Robert Kardashian standing alongside of him. The stations switched to different groupings of people watching the trial. Many groups were as shocked as I. But crowds of blacks gathered at bars and universities stood up and cheered the result. I couldn’t believe it. Simpson had unprovokedly killed his ex-wife and another innocent in cold blood — using a military assault knife. At the time, I thought: This has set back race relations 30 years! (I believe that Trump saw this too and conflated it with his false memory of hoards of Muslims cheering on 9/11 when the twin towers came down. Far be it for me to enlighten him on his error.) Mr. Bugliosi would go so far as to state that the evidence was so overwhelming against Simpson that 10% of the total would have been sufficient for conviction — even allowing for the defense attorneys to select the 90% to be excluded! If you believe in karma, this not guilty verdict could be seen as a cosmic payback — because there wasn’t a single white man on the jury. Whites got to see how it feels to live through an injustice this time.
But what if, say 40% of the people, had watched all of the Simpson proceedings on a channel that had shown only the defense lawyers’ arguments — then followed up with hours of favorable agreeable discussion. Glossing over the facts of the case, they wouldn’t see that Mr. Cochran didn’t have any witness, as promised, that could exonerate Simpson. Instead, they would see how some of the detectives had a history of using the “N word,” and they would pontificate on that. They would spend hours nitpicking over evidence collection minutiae and the esoterics of DNA — all meant to confuse. Watching hour after hour of educated, well dressed, well-spoken lawyers and technical experts rationalize everything, they would lose the point of the trial itself. Their viewers would get none of the overwhelming evidence for guilt, and they would be left hopelessly brainwashed to an alternate reality. Anyone subjected to this one-sided coverage, me included, would be left with little doubt but that Simpson should be found “not guilty.” Any other result would be inconceivable! Why you would have to be an “O. J. Simpson-hater” to believe he was guilty. Or possibly have SDS — “Simpson Derangement Syndrome.” Sound familiar?
And this explains, in my view, how Trump’s base, almost 40% of voters, usually otherwise savvy, some smart and educated people, can stay so rock solid in his support — despite the facts. Just like the fictional cable station that supported only the defense side of the O.J. trial, Fox viewers only see one side, and that side brutally propagandistically slanted toward Trump, the GOP, and their wealthy co-conspirators. Helplessly, these viewers have lost their free will, and they don’t even know it. Heaven help our republic.
David W. Williams, Media