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Twenty years ago Tuesday, America was transfixed by an astonishing, slow-motion car chase: O.J. Simpson in the white Bronco, pal Al Cowlings at the wheel, more than a dozen police cars in pursuit, TV helicopters looming overhead.
Simpson's former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, had been murdered, and the former football star had been named a suspect. Simpson had a gun in the iconic Bronco, and authorities feared he might commit suicide. After 90 minutes, the phantasmagorical sojourn along the freeways of L.A. ended uneventfully in Simpson's Brentwood driveway � with a staggering 95 million Americans watching on television.
Thus began an extraordinary 15�-month obsession with O.J., culminating in the "not guilty" verdict at his murder trial that bitterly divided the nation along racial lines.
But The Chase wasn't just the beginning of Simpsonmania. The national preoccupation with Orenthal James Simpson ushered in an entirely new media environment.
So many of the trends that now engulf us had their roots in The Chase and the ensuing Trial of the Century: saturation coverage of a single story; celebrity journalism; reality TV; the fascination with criminal trials, the more lurid the better.
CNN took a lot of heat earlier this year for its single-minded focus on the saga of the missing plane. That phenomenon started with O.J., when the cable news pioneer devoted 900 hours of airtime to the subject. During one week, the networks turned over a total of 84 minutes of their nightly newscasts to the Simpson saga.
Reality TV has been a staple for quite awhile. But the notion that an actual story with real people rather than a produced drama could rivet the nation became abundantly clear with Simpson.
It was a case with all the elements: race, gender, domestic violence, courtroom pyrotechnics, a celebrity protagonist, a colorful cast of supporting players (Kato Kaelin, anyone?). It even had a Kardashian, Simpson friend and defense team member Robert, father of Kim, et al.
The way Simpson dominated the news media, particularly television, was amazing. This was 1994, a harsh, primitive time with just one cable news network, no Internet, no social media(!), no TMZ. If it happened today, just imagine the 24/7 furor that would ensue. But it's a testimonial to the power of the O.J. story that it could dominate the nation in an era when the media were much less pervasive.
We've had many tabloid circuses come and go. JonBenet Ramsey. Laci Peterson. Casey Anthony. And on and on. But none could duplicate the hold of O.J. It would take all of the investigative reporters at ProPublica to find someone who wasn't paying attention or didn't have an opinion. When that "not guilty" verdict was announced on Oct. 3, 1995, there were spontaneous paroxysms of joy and outrage across the nation.
Magazine writer Lisa DePaulo describes herself as "obsessed from the very first moment" with the Simpson story. "It was the first thing like this," she says. "It was absolutely riveting."
DePaulo, who would go on to write for John F. Kennedy Jr.'s George magazine and for GQ, took sick days at Philadelphia Magazine, where she worked at the time, to watch key portions of the trial. She also made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles to watch the trial � not as a journalist, but as a spectator. She'd start standing in line at 4 a.m. so she could get into the trial. Then she realized it was more fun staying outside.
Foreshadowing another of today's mainstays, there was a de facto red carpet when the key players showed up each day. DePaulo infiltrated Camp O.J., the media gaggle across the street from the courthouse. She had to have all the best Simpson tchotchkes, even scoring the wristwatch with the police car chasing the Bronco.
One of the keys to the fascination, of course, was O.J. himself. It's hard to remember now, but Simpson had been a beloved figure � a highly successful, immensely likable sports figure, a presence in the hilarious Naked Gun movies, a ubiquitous TV pitchman for Hertz, forever running through airports.
"Who didn't love him?" DePaulo asks. The overarching, and fascinating, question was, "Could this hero really be capable of being such a monster?"
After being acquitted in criminal court, "this hero" was ordered to pay the victims' families $33.5 million in a wrongful death judgment in civil court and is now in jail for kidnapping and armed robbery.
Regardless, there's no doubt his improbable scenario had an outsize and long-lingering impact on the worlds of media and entertainment. Not necessarily for the better, of course, but enormous nonetheless.