O.J., TV and wretched excess



The TV networks already are rolling out their programming for the 20-year anniversary of that slow-speed freeway chase involving O.J. Simpson, Al Cowlings and the white Ford Bronco. June 17, 1994, revealed some of the absolute worst about celebrity-obsessed American culture:

  • Our macabre fascination with a hero in the act of falling. Would the NFL hall of famer and broadcaster kill himself on live television? And wouldn’t that just be the most amazing thing we’d ever seen?
  • The bizarre, carnival atmosphere that quickly developed in Los Angeles. People parked along freeway overpasses, cheering and waving homemade signs as the Bronco – and the TV cameras – passed.
  • The “Biggest Story of Our Lives,” watched by almost half the country though it didn’t affect any of us directly.
  • The Kardashians. Simpson’s friend, Robert Kardashian, read what sounded like a suicide note from O.J. This was America’s first exposure to the first family of wretched reality TV.
  • And that the ensuing trial not only would degenerate into an out-of-control spectacle, but also a referendum on race relations in America.

Nearly lost in the evening’s reality-TV spectacle was the fact that, in true reality, two people had been horribly murdered. Instead, it was all just celebrity theater. Television breathlessly served it to an audience that wanted to devour every lurid second.

Twenty years later, what can we learn from it all? The Simpson case marked a tipping point when seedy celebrity news, which had mostly been confined to trashy tabloids, forced itself into the mainstream. Why? Because the public appetite for it is insatiable. It’s easier to sell people candy than broccoli. Wall-to-wall O.J. news displaced serious news from around the world; most Americans weren’t aware of the Rwandan genocide until months or years later. Its absence from our public consciousness was a big reason the West didn’t intervene. As many as a million Rwandans died.

For those of us looking to tell God’s stories in a post-Christian culture, I think the lesson is simply this: Follow the crowds only when you have to. Render unto CNN and TMZ and People Magazine, and then go the other direction. Tell the stories no one else is telling. Even when it feels like they’ll be drowned out by the noise.

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