O.J. Simpson said he’s ready to ‘spend as much time’ as he can with his friends and family while on parole. He was granted parole by a Nevada parole board.
Watching TV, it seemed like we were swearing in a new president of the United States, not gawking at a convicted felon.
Now that O.J. Simpson has won his bid for early release from prison, after having served less than a third of a 33-year sentence for armed robbery, just one question remains: How high will the ratings be?
The Nevada Parole Board’s decision came as little surprise in light of the 70-year-old’s age, his family support and his conduct while incarcerated. What is quite astonishing is that the hearing and the board’s quick decision were broadcast on every major television network, including sports-oriented ESPN. And for anyone who wasn’t near a television set, the proceedings could be streamed live over the Internet, even from a link conveniently provided on the parole board’s official website.
If you didn’t know better, it would seem, given the pervasive attention, that we were swearing in a new president of the United States, not gawking at a convicted felon. At least the hearing wasn’t scheduled for a prime-time audience.
As with other notorious criminals who seek early release from custody, Simpson’s parole hearing is certainly newsworthy. The outcome should make headlines. But the level of overexposure rings more of entertainment than news.
It is one thing to televise trial proceedings involving a celebrity defendant, as he or she remains innocent by presumption. It is quite another to broadcast a parole hearing of a convicted criminal, no matter how extensive his or her achievements before the crime.
The level of attention given Simpson’s hearing also reflects the fact, documented by polling, that countless Americans recognize the difference between being acquitted and being innocent. A majority of Americans, white and black, say O.J. Simpson was guilty of the 1994 double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Presumably, many would have preferred he stay behind bars so as to achieve some measure of justice for that crime. In a March poll, only 20% said he should be paroled.
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At this juncture, O.J.’s notoriety is not so much about his football career, his movie roles or his running through airports in Hertz commercials; it’s about his association with double murder, despite his acquittal. As such, the televising and live streaming of his parole hearing added insult to injury (literally) for the Brown and Goldman families.
There is a movement afoot by a group of criminologists as well as some journalists, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper, to refrain from identifying individuals charged or convicted of multiple homicide. According to this view, the names of those who are implicated in unspeakable crimes should be unspeakable. In my mind, such a prohibition would go a bit too far, as these crimes and those who are alleged to have committed them are newsworthy. It is OK to shed light on a crime, but not a spotlight on a criminal.
There is an important line beyond which the news coverage of criminals can become excessive and offensive. That line was crossed today.
James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, is a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @jamesalanfox.
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