Why O.J.'s Saga Lives and Trayvon's Died
Twenty years ago this week, former football great O.J. Simpson savagely attacked and killed his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. The double murder and subsequent trial generated a small library of videos and books, the most recent of the latter being Kim Goldman’s, Can't Forgive: My 20-Year Battle with O.J. Simpson. I just finished Goldman’s insightful memoir yesterday. I must have read at least ten other books on the case.
A year ago this week, the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin began in Sanford, Florida. Although not as sensational as Simpson’s, Zimmerman’s trial was arguably the most publicized and easily the most politically charged in the twenty years since. Yet to date, there have only been two books on the case, my own If I Had A Son: Race, Guns, and the Railroading of George Zimmerman and the painfully orthodox Suspicion Nation by NBC’s Lisa Bloom, neither of which got any attention. To my knowledge, there has not been a single, thoughtful, long-form essay from any major magazine, left, right, or center. The video front has been just as quiet, and I think I know why this is so.
In the past, the individuals who manned the New York-Hollywood axis and the university outposts in between -- the cultural left --tended to champion the cause of the accused. For nearly a century, from Sacco and Vanzetti to Alger Hiss to Hurricane Carter to Leonard Peltier to Mumia Abu Jamal, they would swarm a specific crime to sell the American public on the innocence of the guilty, even the conspicuously guilty.
This practice aligned with the progressives’ self-image. Historically, they imagined themselves as the Henry Fonda character in the 1957 film classic, Twelve Angry Men. In his screenplay notes, liberal author Reginald Rose describes that character as “a man who sees all sides of every question and constantly seeks the truth. A man of strength tempered with compassion. Above all, he is a man who wants justice to be done and will fight to see that it is.”
In the movie, this juror alone champions the cause of a young Hispanic man accused of murder until he can persuade his fellows to acquit. “We may be wrong,” the Fonda juror concedes. “We may be trying to return a guilty man to the community. No one can really know. But we have reasonable doubt, and this is a safeguard that has enormous value in our system.”
That was fantasy. If movie liberals defend the accused out of the goodness of their hearts, real ones defend the accused to embarrass the system and shame America. In her memoir, The Never-Ending Wrong, Pulitzer Prize winning author Katherine Ann Porter tells how she first came to understand this. The occasion was the impending 1927 execution of Italian anarchists and convicted murderers, Sacco and Vanzetti.As the final hours ticked down, Porter stood vigil with others artists and writers in Boston.
Ever the innocent liberal, Porter approached her group leader, a “fanatical little woman” and a dogmatic Communist, and expressed her hope that Sacco and Vanzetti could still be saved. The response of this female comrade is noteworthy largely for its candor: “Saved?” she snarled. “Who wants them saved? What earthly good would they do us alive?”
With the Italians dead, their innocence and the xenophobic injustice of the American legal system could be preserved in amber, and God help the man or woman who challenged this narrative. Socialist author Upton Sinclair -- he of Jungle fame -- learned this lesson the hard way. He was halfway through a 750-page documentary novel on the case called Boston when he had an encounter with the pair’s original attorney, the ACLU’s Fred Moore.
“Alone in a hotel room with Fred, I begged him to tell me the full truth," Sinclair wrote at the time to his own attorney. “He then told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them." Even in 1927, chroniclers understood the peril of flouting progressive orthodoxy. "My wife is absolutely certain that if I tell what I believe,” Sinclair confided to a friend in 1927, “I will be called a traitor to the movement and may not live to finish the book." Cravenly, he finished the book as originally projected. The myth of the accused’s innocence and America’s guilt lives on to this day.
The guilty as innocent paradigm caused trouble enough over time, but the Zimmerman case signaled a disturbing trend in leftist agitprop: the innocent as guilty. For the first time in the history of American jurisprudence, the cultural left and its media allies conspired with the forces of government and the vestiges of the civil rights movement to put a conspicuously innocent man in prison for the rest of his life.
CBS, NBC, CNN and especially ABC each not only misreported the Zimmerman case but also manufactured “evidence” to convince the public of Zimmerman’s guilt. The print media did next to nothing to correct the corrupted record. Their collective disinformation campaign led much of America, including virtually all of black America, to believe George Zimmerman would be convicted of murder. When he was acquitted, the resulting outrage further aggravated America’s racial divide.
The O.J. Simpson case also aggravated that divide but only after videos surfaced of black Americans cheering the verdict. Until that point, most white Americans did not think race much of a factor in the case. To them, the charming pitchman Simpson had long since transcended it. If any political perspective influenced reporting on the case it was not race but gender. This was the rare time, in fact, that feminists and ordinary justice-loving conservatives found themselves on the same side of the cultural ramparts.
After the Simpson verdict, writers and producers felt free to explore the case in depth because all facts led in one direction, the direction that the media had been pursuing from the beginning, that of Simpson’s guilt. No one has written a serious book or produced a serious documentary making a case for his innocence.
After the Zimmerman verdict, however, writers and producers have shied from exploring the subject in depth because the facts all lead in the opposite direction, the direction that the media rejected from the beginning, that of Zimmerman’s innocence. It is one thing to corrupt a two-minute news byte or a 500-word article. That’s all in a day’s work. It is another thing altogether to corrupt a book or a feature-length documentary. That takes commitment.
True, a mainstream writer or producer could follow the truth where it leads, but that involves even more risk than when Upton Sinclair contemplated the same. Sinclair, at least, did not have to worry about mandatory sensitivity training.