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Who decides what Americans have a right to see?

Erin McGinn | Thursday, November 30, 2006

In our modern-day world it is next to impossible to escape from the influence and impact of the media world. With the nearly constant connection to media outlets – from televisions, to computers, to books and newspapers – the American public is constantly absorbing information of all kinds.

Although not everything that passes from the media to the public is of interest to everyone, the beauty of having such a diversity of options is that the public can choose what they want to pay attention to and ignore the rest.

In the middle of November, ReganBooks and the FOX television network announced that they were, respectively, publishing a book written by and airing an interview with the notorious O.J. Simpson. The two-part interview was between Simpson and his publisher, Judith Regan, about his book entitled “If I Did It.” On November 20 – just ten days before the book was scheduled to hit the shelves – News Corp. (who owns both HarperCollins/ReganBooks and FOX) announced that it was canceling both the book and television interview.

Aside from being a Heisman winner at USC, an NFL Hall-of-Famer with the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers and an actor in such Hollywood hits as “The Towering Inferno” and “The Naked Gun,” Simpson is arguably most famous for being the center of “The Trial of the Century” where he was accused of committing the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. Anyone older than a toddler during the summer of 1994 will remember watching the footage of the slow-speed white Bronco chase across the California Interstate on almost every major network – NBC even interrupted its coverage of the 1994 NBA Finals in order to air the pursuit.

From beginning to end, Simpson’s criminal courtroom trial was a complete media frenzy. Every single minute of the trial aired on Court TV – there were 133 days of televised testimony, making it the most public criminal trial to date.

On Oct. 3, 1995 the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” in front of an audience of 150 million American television viewers. There was never a moment when the American media public was not involved – or at the very least interested – in the Simpson case.

Only a few weeks ago ReganBooks announced that they were publishing a 240-page book written by Simpson called “If I Did It,” where Simpson hypothetically describes in the second-half of the book how he would have committed the murders of Brown and Goldman if he had been guilty of the crime.

His publisher, Judith Regan, told the Associated Press that she considered the book his confession to the crime.

The book was to be preceded by a two-part interview between Simpson and Regan (Barbara Walters initially asked for the interview, but then backed out of the project) that was going to air on the FOX network on Nov. 27 and 29.

Just over a week before both the interview and the book were to go public, News Corp. issued a statement that both had been cancelled due to criticism over the releases. HarperCollins, of which ReganBooks is a division, announced that all copies of “If I Did It” that had been shipped to stores were being recalled and that every copy of the book is to be destroyed.

However, several copies of the book have since shown up on eBay and changed hands, with bids reaching upwards of a million dollars.

Although books have been recalled for instances of plagiarism, this is a rare instance where a book has been pulled over its content. The Associated Press called the book’s cancellation “an astonishing end to a story like no other,” recognizing that a publisher withdrawing a book for its content “is virtually unheard of.”

Both the Brown and Goldman families were vocal about their opposition to both the television interview and book, appearing on several news shows and giving several interviews.

The Goldman family started an online petition at dontpayoj.com, and garnered 58,395 signatures. They argued that this move by Simpson was nothing but exploitation and was allowing him to profit from the murders of their family members.

The question resulting from this overall debacle is who decides what is appropriate or not in the media. Although there were protesters to “If I Did It,” there were also supporters.

The spokesperson for Borders, Inc., Ann Binkley, stated that the book would be carried at Borders and Waldenbooks stores because of their belief that “it is the right of customers to decide what they read and what to buy.” Borders, Inc. also stated that they were donating all of the proceeds from sales of “If I Did It” to charity.

What some people deem offensive, others will enjoy while being offended by yet other material. There are consistently cases of outcry over everything from “South Park” to “Harry Potter” to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” – but where is the line that decides when it is allowable for material to be pulled from the hands of the public?

In the case of “If I Did It” it was the squeaky wheel that got the oil.

While some are rejoicing over this questionable victory, it leaves others worrying about the precedent that this sets. The Simpson trial was important enough in the eyes of the public to be called “The Trial of Century.”

Dozens of books have been published about the case – without the same cries of exploitation. This was not even OJ’s first book. In 1995, Simpson published “I Want to Tell You” where he responds to letters and questions about his life, the trial and his declared innocence in the murders. That book has not been pulled off the shelves to be destroyed.

But now the line has been drawn. Is it about the exploitation of the deaths of innocent people? Then how soon until books, or movies, about 9/11 are pulled? Is it about appropriateness and offensiveness? How soon until “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Harry Potter” are recalled from shelves and destroyed? Or public book burnings of “Mein Kampf?”

Where does the line stop?

Simpson’s book might be shelved indefinitely, but the American people are left to struggle with the ramifications of, what is ultimately, his censorship.