Zach Hacker: The day a (former) athlete changed the world
Journalism, like just about everything else in the world, has its important dates.
The argument can be made, however, that no date is truly bigger in my line of work than 20 years ago today: (or yesterday as you’re reading this in the print edition) June 17, 1994. That date may not jump out to you as one that bears any amount of significance; but I’d wager most of you remember a lot about it. The interesting thing (at least for me) about that date is that sports were at the forefront of what was going on.
It was already a pretty huge day in American sports even before the top story of the day. The World Cup started in Chicago; golf legend Arnold Palmer (he’s not just a beverage mogul, kids) played his final round at a U.S. Open; a ticker-tape parade was held in New York for the Rangers’ first Stanley Cup since the Millard Fillmore administration (not really that long, but you get the drift); and the New York Knicks were playing the Houston Rockets in Game 5 of what we thought was the first NBA Finals in the post-Michael Jordan era. All of those things just ended up being a footnote, however, when an NFL Hall of Famer brought law enforcement on a slow-speed chase down the freeways of Los Angeles on live TV.O.J. Simpson, who was beloved as a former Heisman Trophy winner, star running back in the NFL, star of numerous commercials (most notably orange juice) and actor in the “Naked Gun” film series, was on the run from police. Simpson, who was supposed to appear in court that morning, went AWOL. Later, one of his lawyers, Robert Kardashian (yes, one of THOSE Kardashians), read what appeared to be a suicide note written by Simpson at a press conference.
Later that evening, Simpson was tracked down. He was in the back of a white Ford Bronco driven by friend and former teammate Al Cowlings, holding a gun to his own head. Television crews caught wind, sent helicopters out to film and we all went along for the ride.
When looking at the importance of the coverage of O.J.’s chase, we have to remember that it was a time before there were 15 different round-the-clock news channels, social media and everyone had a high-definition video camera the size of a deck of cards in their pocket (the thing even doubles as a telephone!). For perhaps the first time in history, a major news event was unfolding before our very eyes in primetime.
More than 95 million people reportedly tuned in to watch the car chase, riveted by the curiousity in how it would all end. In a sense, you could say it was reality TV before reality TV (and, unlike today’s reality TV, it was actually REAL).
At the time all of this happened, I was 8 years old, barely two weeks removed from the second grade. Back then, this didn’t seem very important to me, yet somewhere in my subconcious I must have known it was a big deal. I know this because I still remember where I was and what I was doing as it was happening. (I was at home, upset with WCCO for breaking into the Twins game to show the chase).
The O.J. Simpson car chase gave new meaning to the idea of “breaking news.” No longer did it refer to something that happened within the last couple of hours. Live coverage that night thrust us forward into the round-the-clock, news-as-it-happens world that we live in today. It paved the way for everyone to want things like Twitter, cell phones with internet access and 15 different cable news networks. It showed everyone that, as a society, we want information; and we want it now.
I believe that day caused news outlets, large and small, to step up their game and transform into what they are today. As a result, we have no reason not to be informed.