20 years ago, O.J.’s final run sparked an idea that brought the Star-Telegram national attention (unfortunately)
05/28/2014 10:34 AM
05/28/2014 10:35 AM
In the 40 years I’ve been a journalist, I’ve had a lot of crazy ideas.
About 10 years ago I convinced the publisher it would be a good idea to print a section in 3-D. Another time we had a newsroom contest to see who could write the best headline, and we set up bleachers in the newsroom like it was a prize fight and “televised” it throughout the office with color commentary from one of our editors wearing a Don King wig.
We’ve had newsroom Easter egg hunts and putting competitions, and one year we had a contest for readers and I wound up taking a busload of winners to Memphis during the 15th observance of the death of Elvis Presley.
But my very best (worst?) idea involved O.J. Simpson.
June 17 marks the 20th anniversary of the low-speed chase around the freeways of Los Angeles that transfixed the country, me included.
It was the birth of reality TV, and “The Juice” is six degrees of separation from its biggest star, Kim Kardashian. Her father, Robert Kardashian, had been one of O.J’s worshippers for 30 years and was a volunteer member of his “Dream Team” of attorneys.
He also has an Elvis connection, because he dated Priscilla in the ’70s after she dumped the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. And of course, O.J. acted with Priscilla in the Naked Gun movie series.
Anyway, as I was watching O.J. and Al Cowlings leisurely “run” from the LA. cops, I didn’t know it but an idea began building that would bring me praise from Geraldo Rivera and scorn from Katie Couric. Too bad it wasn’t the reverse.
You might not remember, but the Court TV network debuted in 1991 and was showing some trials from start to finish. I thought if there was ever a big enough trial the Star-Telegram would pick its own “jury,” have them watch and come to their own verdict and we would write about it.
When Judge Lance Ito announced he would allow TV cameras in the O.J. trial courtroom, I knew this was the one.
The trial was supposed to last six weeks. We advertised for potential jurors, with the stipulation we wouldn’t pay them but would spring for lunch every day. We set up a big screen in one of our rooms at the old Star-Telegram offices on Abram Street in Arlington for them to watch.
Although viewers had no idea what the real O.J. jury was thinking as the trial went on, we were writing stories about what our jury was saying almost every day.
It attracted the attention of the national TV media, who were hungry for any story about O.J.
I appeared on Court TV, Entertainment Tonight and even some legitimate news shows like Good Morning America. Geraldo Rivera had a daily talk show at the time — after he cemented his reputation for quality TV (!) with “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults” — and called our effort a groundbreaking moment in TV history when I was a guest.
Unfortunately, we had to end our experiment before O.J. pulled his biggest escape since eluding tacklers during the 1973 NFL season, becoming the first running back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season.
Two of our jurors — a white woman and a black man — literally got into a fistfight while watching the trial one day, and we called everything off.
One week later the three of us appeared on The Today Show, where Katie advised me to have better sense the next time I had an idea like this.
Luckily, NBC was being criticized after secretly rigging a pickup truck to explode on air to better illustrate a problem GM was having, so I was able to remind her I wasn’t the only one whose idea blew up in their face!
About Jim Witt
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