The Media Spiral: From O.J. to Sherrod

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Right: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Fifteen years ago, O.J. Simpson's criminal trial changed America's media culture forever. By dominating the nation's attention through 1995 and beyond, the tale established a template in which the media are triggered and overwhelmed by any story line that has basic elements of culture, controversy and polemic — all of which were present in the gridiron great's sordid narrative. The Simpson case would have been a huge media story in any era, but what made it a paradigm-shifting event was the fact that it happened to occur at the dawn of the new media age.

The three pillars of new media — cable-TV news, the Internet and talk radio (the last an older medium that has been reborn and rebooted in the postmodern period) — were all rising at the time of the Simpson murders, with not only bigger audiences but an ever increasing capacity to set the national media agenda.

What all three of these media crave is content that is driven by contretemps, gripping video, factual disputes, logistics and compelling dramatic personae. What the Simpson case taught news and entertainment organizations — from the lone pajama-clad blogger to the suited stable of broadcast-network-news presidents — is that such complex, unfolding story lines provide the kind of long-term fodder that fills a news hole of any size, often cheaply. No organization wants to be a minor player in a major story, thus establishing a crude dynamic in which maximum resources are thrown at even the tawdriest detail.

Last week's focus on the forced ouster of Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod was only the latest rerun of the legacy of Simpson Syndrome, a grotesque Groundhog Day set of conditions that occur all too often. First, there are facts in dispute regarding the original incident. Second, there are pending or anticipated events about which the media can speculate ceaselessly: What will happen next? When will it happen? What will happen after it happens? Third, there are swirling controversies pertaining to perennially hot themes such as race, gender, sex, class and power. And fourth, there are vibrant characters on hand to expound, expand and suck up airtime.

The Simpson investigation and trial were not explicitly political, but they brought serious questions to the public square and became a cause célèbre for every media outlet. In the Sherrod storm, politics is, of course, directly involved, bringing a patina of legitimacy to the incessant news coverage.

And that explains why the firing of Sherrod last week paralyzed the Obama Administration and completely overwhelmed coverage of more important matters, such as the President's signing of the financial-regulation law, Washington's debates over how to deal with unemployment, major developments regarding Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq and about a dozen other truly significant stories.

Just as there was something intrinsically interesting about one of America's best-known and best-liked athletes being charged with a brutal double murder, the craven sacking of Sherrod contained some elements that are undeniably compelling. And both stories involved racial elements that increased their news velocity.

But the coverage of both sagas — Simpson's, literally, for years; Sherrod's for the better part of a week — was insanely overblown. The Sherrod story is a reminder — much like the 2004 assault on John Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — that the old media are often swayed by controversies pushed by the conservative new media. In many quarters of the old media, there is concern about not appearing liberally biased, so stories emanating from the right are given more weight and less scrutiny. Additionally, the conservative new media, particularly Fox News Channel and talk radio, are commercially successful, so the implicit logic followed by old-media decisionmakers is that if something is gaining currency in those precincts, it is a phenomenon that must be given attention. Most dangerously, conservative new media will often produce content that is so provocative and incendiary that the old media find it irresistible.

So the news-and-information conveyor belt moves stories like the Sherrod case from Point A to Point Z without any of the standards or norms of traditional journalism, not only resulting in grievous harm to the apparently blameless, such as Sherrod, but also crowding out news about virtually anything else. The endless obsession with the Simpson story was absurd and gluttonous, and the pattern has been reproduced countless times since (the death of Anna Nicole Smith, the Gary Condit–Chandra Levy mystery, the ongoing Rod Blagojevich soap opera), but the Sherrod story may be the low point of this phenomenon because of its illegitimate origins. Andrew Breitbart, a conservative firebrand with a record of selectively editing video for partisan advantage, used a misleading snippet to produce a chain reaction that embarrassed the old media, the NAACP and the President of the United States — all of which led to even more content generated, rehashed, debated and mulched.

At a time when the country faces real challenges, with major elections coming up in November, did the nation really want to spend a week on this? Presidential advisers, including Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod, who have earned virtual Ph.D.s in such political-media complexities, were on one level as seemingly powerless to stop the whole mess from spiraling out of control as were their predecessors in the Clinton and Bush White Houses. But the Obama Administration took the critical and alarming step of bowing to the expectations of the right and forcing Sherrod out of her job before completing even the most cursory investigation.

Gibbs and other officials publicly stopped short of saying it was all the media's fault, but they certainly suggested something very close to that. There is enough blame to go around. The new-media genie is not going back into the bottle; there are no easy solutions for how to end the dynamic unleashed by Orenthal James Simpson and his motley band of abettors, accusers, analysts and voyeurs. But all of us who are involved in politics and media should take a moment to recognize that we have hit a low point. And let all of us resolve that, having hit bottom, it is time to start climbing out of the pit.