June 17, 2014

It was 20 years ago today

In my life, I have (so far) had two "you-gotta-see-this" moments. By this I mean, friends or roommates, who knew that I was interested in current events, deliberately came to my room to tell me to get to a TV, because "You gotta see this."

The first of these was on April 19, 1993, when a housemate told me to turn on CNN so I could see the conflagration of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco and the demise of their leader David Koresh, bringing an end to a 51-day seige of the compound by federal authorities.

The second was a little over a year later, and 20 years ago today. when the "you gotta see this" turned out to be then-murder suspect O. J. Simpson, holding a gun to his head and driving a white Bronco down a Los Angeles freeway at low speed, pursued by a dozen police cruisers. It was an absurdist moment. If "Yackety Sax" had been playing, it would have made more sense.

This article from Vanity Fair argues that the O. J. Simpson chase was, per their title, the death of popular culture, but also the birth of reality TV. First, it offered a voyeuristic look into the lives of a notable celebrity. Author Lili Anolik writes, "It gave us the dirty little thrill of putting our eye to the keyhole, looking in on a world that we’d normally never have access to." Second, like most reality TV programs, it featured third-rate Hollywood. Just as you'll never see a Hollywood A-lister starring in a series on TLC, Simpson's acting career never rose to any lofty heights. The most notable witness of Simpson's murder trial, slacker Kato Kaelin, became, like many reality TV stars, famous for being famous. And, of course, if not for the trial, the most talked-about news story of 1995, "Kardashian" would never have become a household name.

The article makes interesting reading. If nothing else, it reminds me that it was around the time of the Simpson kerfluffle that I became soured on cable news because its focus began to shift away from legitimate news toward celebrity gossip. O. J. Simpson was at least accused and acquitted of doing something newsworthy. When newscasts spend an inordinate amount of time reporting on the outcome of reality TV competitions such as American Idol, Justin Bieber's arrests, or the hottest new YouTube videos, the line between reality and reality TV has become irreversably blurred.