An interesting thing happened on the way to the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial: As the trial went on, a greater percentage of Americans became convinced that Simpson was guilty.
Meanwhile, the exact opposite was happening inside the jury box.
So, on October 3, 1995, eleven months after the trial began, when the jurors returned the not guilty verdict, most Americans were shocked.
Despite a sharp racial divide, a large majority of Americans either believed Simpson was guilty or weren’t sure. The jurors, however, had little trouble voting unanimously to acquit him after minimal deliberation.
Why were so many Americans stunned by the verdict? The mostly white mainstream media deserves at least some of the blame.
Remember, in 1995, the overwhelming number of Americans got their news from newspapers, ABC, CBS, and NBC (including the networks’ local affiliates).
Only 18 million American households had modem-equipped computers; most news organizations didn’t have websites to speak of; Fox News and MSNBC hadn’t been founded; and CNN had low viewership and was many years away from its recent politicization.
While a few million Americans watched the trial on TV on various channels that carried it live, public opinion was mostly influenced by traditional news organizations.
Those of us in mainstream media almost unanimously agreed Simpson killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman. I include myself because, as an ABC News correspondent, I filed weeks of daily reports on the case for “Good Morning America.” While I did not cover it full-time, I briefly attended the trial and interviewed some of the major people involved.
I have no doubt that our collective certainty in Simpson’s guilt affected the tone of our coverage. I also believe that, in trying to tell the story as fairly as possible within the time constraints television news imposes, the prosecution’s failure to counter the defense "Dream Team's" onslaught may not have come across as clearly to the TV audience as it did to the jury.
The end result is that the media message helped influence the national conviction that Simpson was guilty as charged.
(Note: In the Simpson case, history has been on the mainstream media’s side. In 2016, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 83% of White Americans and 57% of Black Americans believe Simpson is a murderer. Only 7% cling to believing the former football star is innocent.)
How Does the Simpson Case Relate to the Rittenhouse Trial?
I’ll get to the similarities between the Simpson and Rittenhouse trials later, but they had many major differences, two of which are most important for the purposes on this piece.
First, neither the left nor the right had a big bone to pick in the Simpson case. The races were divided in their opinions on Simpson’s guilt, but no significant partisan divide existed.
In the Rittenhouse case, the partisan divide was deep. According to a Morning Consult survey, 71% of Republicans approved of the not-guilty verdicts. Only 31% of Democrats did.
Even before the verdict, according to a YouGuvAmerica survey, 76% of Democrats thought Rittenhouse should be found guilty, 5% not guilty, and the rest weren’t sure. Reverse that for Republicans. 65% said he should not be found guilty, and 15% guilty. Independents slightly favored guilt, 42-38.
Second, the Simpson case didn’t lead to a major media divide, in part because the national media landscape was far more homogenous than it is today. Right-wing radio was in its early days, and there was no "opinion" TV to speak of. Almost all media qualified as mainstream.
By the time the Rittenhouse case came along, partisan media had exploded in strength and reach. Also, the media echo chambers on both extremes went into overdrive to achieve their own political and commercial purposes.
Feeding the narrative their respective viewers wanted, liberal media portrayed Rittenhouse as the devil’s spawn, a white supremacist terrorist. On the other side, conservative media lionized the teenager as a paragon of law and order.
Both sides repeatedly obfuscated and misrepresented what happened in Kenosha and in the trial itself, irresponsibly dividing the country and inciting absurd and damaging reactions.
What About Similarities Between the Simpson and Rittenhouse Media Coverage?
The two cases had a significant similarity: Folks in the mainstream media almost unanimously agreed that Rittenhouse was guilty. That led to misleading reports and extensive misinformation about who Rittenhouse was, what he did, whom he shot, and whether he had been attacked (I won’t go into details here, but there’s plenty of reporting about it online).
As Bari Weiss wrote, “This wasn’t a disinformation campaign waged by Reddit trolls or anonymous Twitter accounts. It was one pushed by the mainstream media and sitting members of Congress for the sake of an expedient political narrative.”
I confess. I was among those convinced that Rittenhouse was a vigilante who showed up at a Black Lives Matter protest looking for a fight and who proceeded to kill two peaceful protesters.
I thought he was guilty and that he’d be convicted because I hadn’t really focused on the case and mostly consumed mainstream media articles and TV reports.
Then I watched good chunks of the trial and read up on Wisconsin law. Very quickly, I stopped assuming anything. So, as I wrote in an earlier column, I was not surprised at all when the jury rendered its verdict.
The YouGovAmerica survey taken before the verdict also showed that 57% of Americans “who have heard a lot about the Rittenhouse trial” believed he would be found not guilty. That’s despite the fact that 50% of those who were watching the trial most closely thought he should be convicted.
So, those who were paying most attention generally favored a conviction, but did not think he’d be found guilty.
So, What’s the Lesson?
Liberal pundits and politicians were especially stunned by the jury’s verdict.
Why? Like the overwhelming majority of Americans, they watched very little of the trial and most of their information came through the filter of their partisan media echo chambers or a mainstream media that was biased against Rittenhouse.
While a Pew Research survey found that a substantial majority of Americans say they prefer to get political news from unbiased sources, most news organizations have a point of view.
And what Americans say is not necessarily what they do. Many, if not most, are choosing to watch and read news from sources they agree with and that confirm their biases.
The alternate media universes then trigger outrage on both sides when their expectations don’t become reality. They are shocked because they hold deeply entrenched positions, never having heard an opposing view.
And that is splitting this country in two.
Cover photo: On June 25, 1995, in Los Angeles, O.J. Simpson shows the jury in his double murder trial a new pair of gloves similar to those found at the crime scene. Simpson was found not guilty of charges that he killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
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