BROOKE GLADSTONE: This weekend marks the anniversary of the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, a crime that eventually led to a national obsession called the O.J. Trial. The cable-televised proceedings, ending in the acquittal of football legend O.J. Simpson mesmerized America for nine months -- the century's last Trial of the Century, and probably one deserving of the name. But upon further consideration, Slate's legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick can't quite figure out why.
DAHLIA LITHWICK: There's been this sort of O.J. industrial complex that has tried to sort of affix all these meanings, you know, why this trial was a watershed. Many, many, many feminist legal thinkers say this was a sort of seminal moment in terms of thinking about domestic abuse, and there are a lot of professors who are interested in sort of law and race who say no, this was a seminal moment in talking about race in America. And then there's people who think about juries, and they say no, this was a superb moment of, of jury nullification --that's the principle where juries come to sort of the right legal conclusion and then they ignore it for some larger reason, and so this has come to stand for that. It's come to stand for sort of a thousand different things in the law, and yet my very strong feeling is that you could find other, better cases to represent any of those.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your piece, you note that Aaron Burr in 1807 complained that he couldn't get a fair trial because of all the publicity, and you note that Bruno Hauptmann, who was on trial for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1935, had more reporters covering him than covering all of World War I.
DAHLIA LITHWICK: And, and the Scopes Monkey Trial which happened in the 1920s, the courtroom was so crowded with reporters that they had to move out to the courthouse lawn. I mean one of the sort of the pieces of mythology we've built up about O.J. is that this was the beginning of sort of public fascination with celebrity trials. I mean that's simply not true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You call this a blip -- a one-time race to the bottom. How come?
DAHLIA LITHWICK: Well, because I think that it was a sort of a, a perfect storm, if you will. There were all these factors. You know, cable television was just coming in to its own. They were trying this experiment of what if we cover something gavel to gavel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But as you say yourself, there were lots of other televised trials too. Maybe television wasn't the deciding factor here either.
DAHLIA LITHWICK: No, I, I think that's really important. You know, we forget that other trials -- you know, the William Kennedy Smith trial was covered. The Adolf Eichmann trial was covered on television. Trials have been carried on national television since the 1960s. You know, it's hard to say what the factors are. It's hard say why, you know, the William Kennedy Smith trial, which involved a Kennedy, and it involved sex and all the things that should have really lit people up, just wasn't a media event. And I, you know, sit awake at night and think why Scott Peterson? Why did this case capture the American imagination in a way that, you know, many of the other domestic murders don't? You know, guys kill their wives every day, and yet the American public seizes on some and not on others, and, and my strong suspicion -- it has a lot to do with what the media conspires to tell them are going to be big, big sensational trials.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I think what struck me most about your piece is that you didn't really blame the fact that it was a murder or sex or race or celebrity or even television for the O.J. explosion. In the end, you seemed to lay responsibility at the feet of the American television viewing audience.
DAHLIA LITHWICK: Sure. I mean the same people who, you know, are obsessed with American Idol and are obsessed with Fear Factor -- I mean we create the market for that. Just because there were televisions in that courtroom doesn't make it the media's fault. You know, there have been televisions in courtrooms, as I've said, before and since. We just didn't show up to watch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other words, the media can tell you that this is the trial of the century, but you don't have to listen. This time, we all did.
DAHLIA LITHWICK: Every two weeks, they name a trial, the trial of the century -- that's smart business sense. You know? It, it's not different from saying this is the best toothpaste in the world. But the market is usually smarter than that. The market knows that this toothpaste is no different from the last one, and I think we've become at least a little bit smarter, so that when they told us that Martha Stewart was the trial of the century or the Unabomber trial or the Tim McVeigh trial or any number of trials that have happened subsequent to O.J., we've all went - Oh, not the trial of the century, again! [LAUGHTER] And yet, you know, I think with O.J., it was just a moment where we were all willing to say -- [GASPS] "It's the trial of the century!" I don't know that there's going to be another moment like that where the entire country is so riveted by this sort of arc of a trial, and particularly a trial like O.J.'s that went on for nine months. I just don't know that that could happen again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so you call the O.J. Simpson obsession "a sleazy, one-night stand, and like all one-night stands, it has to come to an end."
DAHLIA LITHWICK: [LAUGHS] One certainly hopes. I, you know, I'm not encouraged when you hear that they're hiding cameras in the bushes outside of Michael Jackson's court proceedings. It makes me think we may just race to the bottom again, but so far the American public, I think, has been pretty smart about not exactly joining in to the sort of one-night, sleazy sordidness that we engaged in last time around.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Dahlia, thank you very much.
DAHLIA LITHWICK: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Dahlia Lithwick is senior editor for Slate. [MUSIC]