Squeezing Juice

Inside CNN’s LA Newsroom During the Chase

I clearly recall the tension. I anxiously flipped through the radio dial for the latest OJ Simpson updates as I made my way to CNN’s Los Angeles Bureau. The date was June 17, 1994. As the evening Assignment Editor I was responsible for coordinating the bureau’s breaking news coverage. I was twenty-five years old and had been in the job less than three months.

Byron Miranda, our morning Assignment Editor, mapped the situation for me upon arrival. Today Byron is a well-known weatherman in Los Angeles. But in 1994 he was a talented breaking news coordinator, having learned crisis management in the Air Force. We went over the known details, the location and scheduling of each camera crew, the questions CNN’s national news desk in Atlanta needed answered, and the likely contingencies. I remember desperately — but silently — wishing OJ’s disappearance would remain unsolved until my shift ended.

The newsroom was eerily charged in those moments before we found the Ford Bronco. Everyone realized the scale of the story, having just spent the week working around the clock on the celebrity-linked double murder. Then OJ’s friend Robert Kardashian read an apparent suicide note at a press conference. The news narrative was now closing towards a climax, but unlike most fast-moving situations we lacked structure, details, context, and even some basic information.

And then it happened. I cannot recall the precise ignition but our newsroom exploded with energy. Somebody yelled out that OJ was driving up the highway towards Los Angeles and our affiliates would patch through chopper feeds momentarily. My memory is that KCBS got the first live shot, but instantly and almost simultaneously every TV mounted high on the newsroom wall switched over to helicopter video. There it was: the white Ford Bronco, the police escort, and the gleaming ribbon of highway reflecting the afternoon sun.

Much of the next twelve hours remains a blur. Our newsdesk quickly established a direct line from the desk to “the pit” in Atlanta where the latest information could be relayed into the earpiece of our anchors or Larry King. The bureau’s two-way radios buzzed as producers and reporters guessed the most likely locations for OJ’s final stop. Telephones rang and beeped, wire printers rattled out their copy, and everyone tried to discover any information to contextualize the shots airing live.

Journalism, as we generally practiced it, was collapsing. Live broadcast technology swamped our ability to report. The time buffer needed to locate, verify, organize and report facts had simply evaporated. At times our newsroom remained as transfixed as the audience in their living rooms. It was simultaneously excruciating, suspenseful, exhilarating, frustrating and electrifying. There was no storyline here, just a series of events being controlled by OJ.

But we needed something to report. The pressure was tremendous. The newsdesk was a madhouse. In the middle of the insanity a telephone receiver was thrust at me. “Who is this?” I barked. “Its me! Jono!” hollered my brother. “This is so thrilling! I can’t stand it!” I angrily hung up. But my brother’s voice also confirmed that we were not alone; he symbolized millions of Americans excited by their participation in this incredibly suspenseful drama. The rest of the evening was a crazy mess. Rumors and technical glitches mounted. At one point, while waiting for OJ to emerge from the parked Bronco, I thought I heard a gunshot from the chopper feed. My stomach dropped. For an instant I believed we broadcast the first celebrity suicide live on television.

But this story did not require that gruesome addition to be completely mesmerizing to the world. The chase simply intensified the exaggerated demand for OJ news emerging throughout that week.

That’s the real legacy of June 17, 1994. It remains the catalytic moment of the tabloid decade. Cable news was forever transformed, as the ensuing OJ Simpson trial propelled the growth of sensationalistic reporting to historic new heights. The viewing public proved insatiable. The trial generated enormous profits from tiny production costs (the courtroom, for instance, was wired into a pool feed). CNN’s bottom line soared as the network squeezed OJ for every penny. Other industry executives eyed Ted Turner enviously and planned their own networks. Both MSNBC and Fox News launched in the year following OJ’s 1995 acquittal. The race was on. Soon the media universe became populated by the likes of Monica, Chandra, and Geraldo.

Those were heady times for journalism. More reporters chased more stories, earning more revenue for their employers, than is conceivable today. The web’s devastation of journalism has transformed my opinion of the tabloid decade. I left CNN after coordinating one too many live shots from OJ Simpson’s home at two in the morning when there existed (literally) no reportable news. I was not cut out for that work.

Two decades later, however, I can more clearly recognize the virtue of sensationalism. Squeezing Juice created opportunities — and jobs — in the media ecosystem in ways I did not appreciate in the 1990s. Some criticize CNN’s relentless coverage of the Malaysian airlines tragedy earlier this year. But if those ratings generate sufficient revenue, and if the resulting profits create more investment — and jobs — in news gathering and reporting, then that’s an outcome we should all appreciate. Ultimately, the OJ story might teach the media how to turn lemons into lemonade.

Michael J. Socolow is an Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine.

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