O.J. And Oscar Trials: A 'Combination Of Celebrity, Wealth And Murder'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'd like to start the program today by going back to a story that millions of people around the world watched with equal parts fascination and, I think, disgust. Twenty years ago today, television viewers around the world were focused on the image of a phalanx of police cars chasing a white Ford Bronco through south Los Angeles. Los Angeles police commander at the time, David Gascon, announced that former star football player, O.J. Simpson, was a fugitive.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
DAVID GASCON: Mr. Simpson is a wanted murder suspect - two counts of murder - a terrible crime. We need to find him. We need to apprehend him. We need to bring him to justice, and we need to make sure that we find him as quickly as possible.
MARTIN: O.J. Simpson was found and was charged and later acquitted in the murder of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. The trial was later dubbed the trial of the century. The verdict was one of the most-watched televised moments of the last half-century, according to Nielsen. And we could not help but note that now, 20 years later, on the other side of the world, attention is focused on another superstar athlete who stands accused of murdering a loved one.
Here we're talking about South Africa's Oscar Pistorious, who shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day last year in an incident that he says was a tragic accident. We wanted to learn more about what it's like to cover these so-called trials of the century. So I'm joined now by Barry Bateman, senior reporter for Eyewitness News in South Africa. And Bill Whitaker, now a "60 Minutes" correspondent, who covered O.J. Simpson's trial for CBS News and spent every day of the trial in the courtroom. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.
BILL WHITAKER: Hello Michel.
BARRY BATEMAN: Hey.
MARTIN: All right, Mr. Whitaker, take us back to that day 20 years ago. Do you remember where you were during the chase and what was going through your mind about how you were going to cover this?
WHITAKER: Well, I have to admit, I was actually camping in the Grand Canyon that weekend with my son. And as we were packing up to come back, I saw the headlines that O.J. Simpson was a fugitive. And I grabbed the newspaper. And, I must admit, while I was reading that I thought my life is about to change, and it did.
MARTIN: You knew then.
WHITAKER: And it did.
MARTIN: What did you think it was going to be like? Do you remember?
WHITAKER: Well, I remember thinking that, you know, just the combination of celebrity and wealth and murder and race - that all of those things combined were just going to grab the nation's attention, as they did.
MARTIN: And, Mr. Bateman, you were one of the first journalists on the scene at Oscar Pistorius's house on Valentine's Day of last year. Do you remember what was going through your mind when you first started covering that story?
BATEMAN: Quite clearly - I mean, I'd actually called in sick that particular day - called my news editor and said, listen, I'm not feeling too good. I'm going to take it easy today. And it must have been minutes later when I received that phone call from a contact asking me am I in Silver Woods - which is the area where Oscar lives. And he assumed that I should have known what was happening already. He realized the intensity of what this was going to be. And that's when he told me that Oscar Pistorius had apparently shot somebody at his house.
I still had to get my daughter to school, and it was a mad scramble across town to get there. It was about half past eight, I did my first live crossing. Just minutes earlier, another news station had broken the story on Twitter. And that's when the avalanche started. And usually on big stories in South Africa, you'd have your local media guys, your colleagues you worked with before calling each other. Where are you? What's going on? You don't mind helping out with an address. This time it was the Sky News, the CNNs. It was the global media calling everybody - all the South African people they knew - to try to watch what was going on. Where is it happening? The driveway outside his estate was jammed with the cameras of the world. And that was the day everything changed, really.
MARTIN: I wanted to talk about the whole effect of the scrutiny on this. And so, Bill Whitaker, I'll start with you. First, there was the chase which was covered kind of wall-to-wall, even by news organizations that did not have cable outlets - and then the trial being covered wall-to-wall. What do you see all these years later as the legacy of all that? Do you have some thoughts about that?
WHITAKER: Barry was talking about how intense it was. It was incredibly intense. It was part-carnival. It was part-courtroom drama. It was a whodunit. Outside of the courtroom, every day there were crowds of people. When the attorneys came in, it was almost like a red carpet in Hollywood - people lining the sidewalk either clapping or jeering or reaching out for autographs.
Across the street, there was the media village. And it was huge. They had scaffoldings that reached up as far as four stories into the sky so that you could see over the other journalists in front of you and get a good shot of the courthouse. And this went on for about a year, and it was the, you know, a seat in the courtroom was the hottest seat in town. A lot of celebrities would call up the judge to see if they could get in and see a day of the proceedings. It was crazy.
I read the other day that you could call this America's first reality TV show. And, in fact, it was. I mean, the country was riveted. In the beginning, people were complaining that their soap operas are being preempted by this trial. And then by the end, it became a soap opera in and of itself. And people couldn't turn away. They just watched repeatedly, and as you saw, the whole drama draw - drew the country in. We all watched it together. But then that controversial verdict, that not guilty verdict, sort of exposed that deep rift that is race in America.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, that's Bill Whitaker. He's now a "60 Minutes" correspondent. He was a CBS News reporter in Los Angeles. And he was covering - we're talking about the O.J. Simpson trial. We're also drawing comparisons to the current trial of Oscar Pistorius, the South African track athlete, who's currently on trial in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
So, Mr. Bateman, Oscar Pistorius's trial is the first to be televised live in South Africa. And the country's top cable provider has even launched a 24-hour channel. I just want to play one short clip. This is a moment when state prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, cross examined Mr. Pistorius.
(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PISTORIUS TRIAL)
GERRIE NEL: Mr. Pistorius, you were and you still are one of the most recognized faces in the world. Do you agree?
OSCAR PISTORIUS: I agree, my lady.
NEL: You are a model for sportsmen - disabled and able bodied sportsman all over the world.
PISTORIUS: I think I was, my lady. I've made a terrible mistake.
NEL: You made a mistake?
PISTORIUS: That's correct.
NEL: You killed a person. That's what you did, isn't it?
PISTORIUS: I made a mistake, my lady.
NEL: You killed Reeva Steenkamp. That's what you did.
MARTIN: Mr. Bateman, how are people reacting to this? How are they responding to this in the country?
BATEMAN: When this application was launched before the trail to have the trial televised live, I think there were two sides of it. There were the people who wanted to get to the courtroom to see it play out, but there were a lot of detractors as well - people who felt that it would be intrusive. It would affect the judicial process. But I think that it's being played out now. And I think with this dedicated channel that people have been invited into the courtroom, they can see how unobtrusive it actually is. I think they've warmed up to the idea of being able to follow the judicial process from the comforts of their home. They no longer have to rely on the interpretation of a reporter, for example, to unpack this for them.
But just to reflect on what Bill was telling us - I can totally relate to what he's talking about outside of the courtroom with the international - the satellite van set up, the scaffolding there, the outdoor broadcasting centers that get set up to follow this trial. We've never seen anything like this before. I think it's a victory for open justice. And I think it's a victory for South Africans who will now be able to get exposed to the justice system.
MARTIN: Bill Whitaker was talking about the racial elements that became very evident over the course of the trial and then after the verdict was announced when O.J. Simpson was acquitted in the criminal matter. You know, Barry Bateman, are there racial elements here? Are there issues in South Africa's society that are coming to the fore here?
BATEMAN: South Africa has very deep-seated racial issues which, I think, we - just look at apartheid. There's a legacy there there that we're still grappling with. Going into this trial, and shortly after, before we had the judge appointed and so on, there was all this - and there is this - existing perception in South Africa that if you're rich and you're white, you can get away with murder.
And it was perceived that Oscar would go into this, and he would quite easily get off the hook. But I think the judges, they've been very strategic in who they've appointed to preside over this matter. We have a black female judge. I think that was very strategic in terms of the judge presidents decision to have her preside over this matter.
But if you also look at the conduct of Gerrie Nel, he certainly hasn't given him any slack and hasn't gone easy on him. So I think that perception about he was going to get it easy because of his race, I think that has been put to bed. I don't think anybody has that perception any longer.
MARTIN: Bill Whitaker, do you have any final thoughts here about looking back or thinking back over the coverage?
WHITAKER: Well, Barry was talking about the camera in the courtroom. And I remember at the very beginning of this trial - of the O.J. Simpson - that I thought that the camera in the courtroom would be an unmitigated good. Truly, that it would allow Americans to see the judicial process, see how it works. I'm a little more wary of it today because of that experience.
And it wasn't what went on in the courtroom, it was what went on outside of the courtroom. Everyone in that trial became a celebrity - everyone. The attorneys, the families of the murder victims - everyone had their moment in the spotlight. And it sort of influenced what went on in the courtroom in that people were watching Johnny Cochran when he stood up. And Johnnie Cochran became a celebrity attorney because of this trial.
And you would often - you would sometimes see the attorneys sort of play to the camera, even though the camera wasn't looking back at the jury. They would sort of turn sideways sometimes so you could see their faces on camera as they were talking to the jury. I mean, it played very strange role in twisting things a bit. And I think, now, instead of looking at a camera in a courtroom as just being an unmitigated good, I would like to see some, you know, perhaps as they have in South Africa, I think, a very, very strict - restrictions on what goes on and what the attorneys can say and cannot do in front of the camera. I'd like to see a little bit more of that when we have a camera in the courtroom here.
MARTIN: Bill Whitaker is now a correspondent for the CBS News program, "60 minutes." He was a CBS News reporter in Los Angeles at the time of the O.J. Simpson trial. And he joined us from CBS's studios in New York. Barry Bateman is a senior reporter for South Africa's Eyewitness News. He's also working on a book, "Behind The Door: The Oscar and Reeva Story." He joined us via Skype from Pretoria. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
BATEMAN: Thank you very much.
WHITAKER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.