I was living in Buffalo, NY when O.J. Simpson took his famous “White Bronco Ride” in 1994. In a city for which O.J. was both a sports legend and local icon, the shock and sense of loss was perhaps even more devastating than the sudden death of a close friend or family member. However, as crushing as events were for my fellow Buffalonians, the tawdry and disconcerting 15 months that followed were even worse for the rest of America because they helped to cement into place the soul-destroying tabloid culture that now dominates our daily lives.
O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the double murders of his estranged wife and an acquaintance back in 1995, but he has been in a Nevada prison for the past nine years after being convicted for his role in a botched 2007 Las Vegas hotel room robbery. He will, however, be paroled this October—now an aging and arthritic “model prisoner”.
Ironically, he will be futilely attempting to slip away into anonymity within the world of ceaseless speculation, relentless rumormongering, and empty fame that his 1994-95 saga helped create. In the post-O.J. world all aspects of our culture and politics have become captive to made-for-TV (or Internet streaming) contrived controversies, bizarre scandals, and faux news—all resulting in the crushing cynicism that essentially owes its monstrous lineage to the circus surrounding his chase, arrest, and murder trial.
He was acquitted of murder, but the rest of us were sentenced to a lifetime of inane and scandal-ridden infotainment. Now glued to our flat-screen televisions and smart phones, we experience our world as less a sober discussion of our shared values and illuminating experiences and more a gladiatorial contest of screeching individuals and outlandish insults curated by media puppeteers chasing ratings and paychecks. Tabloid culture sets the norms of our lives and our nation.
Right and wrong have ceased to have any meaning. There is only transitory titillation and sensationalized speculation regarding our leading celebrities—or perhaps celebrity leaders masquerading as politicians—that provide our daily dose of outrage. We hold profound opinions regarding the most insignificant people and matters, yet we are largely uninformed about those important issues that will affect our real lives.
Little wonder we cannot concentrate on improving our communities and country.
Those 15 months of “all O.J., all the time” fed our morbid obsession with caring passionately about that which is truly inconsequential—and here we are today. We focus on foolish behavior and petty conflicts, but almost no time is devoted to matters of actual consequence in our lives, and our willful ignorance leaves us vulnerable to demagoguery and deceit. The names change, the salacious and scurrilous scandals slip and slide, and the world goes round and round. Over two decades after the advent of O.J. and his impact on media and our society, we are now too distracted by dramatic dysfunction to even understand just how lost we really are.