Thursday, June 24, 2010

June 17th, 1994

Written by Mark Moseley

As much as I love being a part of "The Media", I love things that pick at, make fun of, or otherwise deconstruct the news business. I watch "The Daily Show" every night, and I subscribe to the hilarious Fake AP Stylebook Twitter feed. It is for that reason that I absolutely loved the ESPN documentary "June 17th, 1994", part of the network's "30 for 30" series.

If there's one thing we in The Media love, it's a good storyline. And on June 17th, 1994, the sports world was rife with potentially great storylines. Some of them played out exactly like The Media wanted them to, others, very differently.

Among the planned, scripted storylines:

-Arnold Palmer's final round at the U.S. Open. It was a farewell to a legend of the game. Palmer shot an abysmal +16, but received more applause and adoration than any other golfer that day. The raw emotion from his first post-round interview left his completely speechless.
-Ken Griffey, Jr. tied Babe Ruth for the fastest to reach 30 home runs in a season. A great feat, but an ultimately pointless one; MLB shut down two months later after players went on strike, and Junior never got his shot to break Roger Maris' then-single season HR record.
-The New York Rangers celebrated their first Stanley Cup win in more than half a century as only a New York team could: with a massive ticker tape parade in Manhattan. A little kid, no more than age 8, summed it the fans' thirst for a winner perfectly by saying, "Now I can die in peace."
-The capper was supposed to be New York Knicks vs. Houston Rockets in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. As we see in the parade footage, Rangers fans were just as excited about a potential Knicks championship (They didn't get it; Houston won in 7).

But then came O.J.

Orenthal James Simpson had already been in the news following the brutal murders of his ex-wife and her friend. On June 17th, murder charges were officially filed against O.J., setting off one of the most surreal media frenzies we will ever see.

"June 17th, 1994" deftly follows the media's bloodlust for new Simpson information, and weaves in a lot of peripheral stuff 99% of us forgot. Example: CNN had to retract a report that a second suspect was sought in the murders. And does anyone remember Robert Kardashian, the father of three reality TV star daughters, reading O.J.'s apparent suicide note?

Of course no one remembers these things. Why? Because just hours later, O.J. and his buddy, A.C. (YOU KNOW WHO HE IS, G**DAMMIT!) led Los Angeles police on the unforgettable White Bronco chase.

The most fascinating part to me, as a news producer, was watching the events of the evening as they unfolded on NBC, which was obligated to carry the basketball game. Raw footage never before seen on TV shows the inimitable Bob Costas agonizing over the transition between Simpson coverage and basketball coverage ("It sounds so callous," Costas says to his producer). I don't know what the other networks were running that night, but they must have had no problem cutting into programming to show The Chase. It instantly took the Simpson story from interesting to the most fascinating real-life drama most people had seen in years, if not decades. And it played out before everyone live on TV.

As a producer, I can almost feel what it was like for the NBC brass. They must have been squirming in their chairs, knowing they had to stay on the game, while they kept a close eye on that white Bronco moving oh-so-slowly down the 405. Remember, O.J. had a gun to his head, and it was widely known that he wanted to take his own life that night.

Of course, he didn't, and we all know what happened in the days, weeks, months, and years after that. The iconic OJ murder trial (which also played out before our eyes on live TV), the sudden thirst for reality-based programming on TV, the creation of Court TV, the celebrity-obsessed culture we currently live in... a lot of it can be traced back to June 17th, 1994.

This movie does a fantastic job of weaving in and out of the sports stories mentioned above with the ever-increasing interest in the Simpson story. Watching this film, you can almost draw an ascending straight line charting how intense the story became as the day wore on: police name O.J. as the primary suspect, O.J. agrees to turn himself in, O.J. goes missing, lawyers read his supposed suicide note, then the Bronco chase.

Without the usual talking heads or narration we normally see in a documentary, "June 17th, 1994" shatters the notion that we can predetermine the outcome of any given story. After all, this is real life we're talking about here, not some trashy TV soap opera.


If you saw the Bronco chase, you probably remember where you were. I was only 8, but I remember well: I was at my grandmother's house, with her and my dad. I had no earthly idea who O.J. Simpson was, or for that matter, what was going on, but I couldn't look away from Memaw's old TV. Do you remember that day? If so, where were you?