Topic: Media

The Ethics of O.J. Simpson’s Book

Just about everyone, it seems, is horrified and outraged over O.J. Simpson’s new book and soon-to-be-televised interview in which he details how he would have murdered his ex-wife and Ron Goldman “if he did it.” It’s sleazy, say the critics; it’s shocking, it’s disgusting, it’s offensive. Those adjectives don’t tell us very much, unless we’ve already made up our minds. Outrage is an emotional reaction, not an analytical one. Outspoken (one could say “loudmouth”) critics like Geraldo Rivera, who certainly knows sleaze, and Bill O’Reilly, who wrote a book about morality after assaulting a female Fox employee with unwanted phone sex, have condemned everyone involved in O.J.’s project without bothering to make a rational and dispassionate case against it. What exactly is ethically objectionable about the book, and who, if anyone, is behaving wrongly?

A decade ago, the evidence in his sensational trial showed that O.J. Simpson had murdered two people in cold blood. A badly-selected, biased and none-too-bright jury acquitted him, in part because it seemed more disturbed that the lead detective in the case using the word “nigger” than by Simpson’s butchery. Long after the ridiculous “not guilty” verdict, much of the country continued to be offended that Simpson still professed his innocence, expressed no remorse, and refused to pay the victims’ families the 30 million dollar judgement against him pronounced by the jury in the civil case following his criminal trial. But all of that outrage stems from old news; we’ve known that Simpson was a killer who got away with murder for twelve years. What specifically is wrong with what he had done now?

It can’t be that he has finally decided to divulge what happened, can it? The “not guilty” verdict and the over-whelming evidence contradict each other, and this was a historic case. There are legitimate reasons to seek closure and a decisive conclusion, and that is impossible without Simpson’s cooperation. Now he is finally telling the story, maybe even all of the story—maybe even the truth. Well, good. Historians certainly wish they had Lizzy Borden’s account of how she killed her parents, though she was also acquitted. We’d love to receive a beyond-the-grave missive from Lee Harvey Oswald explaining his exact role in J.F.K.’s assassination, wouldn’t we? It seems strange to condemn O.J. for ending the speculation on his case.

Is the outrage that he is framing his account as a hypothetical? It certainly seems like a pointless exercise; an innocent man would never write a book casting himself as the murderer of a loved one. The book is a confession; that’s all it could be. What difference does it make if Simpson uses a gimmick to simultaneously confess and technically respect the jury-directed legal decision that he is “innocent”? And if it makes no difference, why should we be outraged about it?

Clearly, people are outraged that Simpson is being paid for his book. If he had been convicted of the murders, federal law would have barred him from profiting from such a book. “Juice” was pronounced “not guilty,” however. He has every right to his profit if people want to acquire information that only he has. Were these same critics of Simpson’s book outraged that Pete Rose sold a book admitting he had bet on baseball? Or that Monica Lewinski made money from her book detailing her affair with President Clinton? Famed bank robber Willy Sutton wrote an autobiography about his illegal exploits; Jose Canseco wrote a book about distributing steroids to his team mates. Do we want to prohibit famous people from writing books that are candid about their misdeeds? Stopping them from getting any money for the exercise would certainly accomplish that, but it would also violate the First Amendment, and would also keep information away from the public. In an ideal world, O.J. would write a book admitting his guilt and express remorse for his crime, then hand all the money over to Nicole’s and Ron Goldman’s families. Are people really outraged that O.J. didn’t do that? Nobody’s ever done anything like that.

“Ah, but O.J. is different,” say the Outraged. “He is profiting from the deaths of Ron and Nicole.” Really? Then all the authors of books on 9/11 are profiting from the deaths of nearly 3000 Americans, right? And every author who has written a book about AIDS, the Hundred Years War, Pearl Harbor, assassination of James Garfield and the O.J. Simpson murder trial is similarly deriving profit from a tragedy. That argument is a stretch, to say the least; Simpson didn’t kill his wife and Goldman for profit. When Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the Manson Family trial, wrote Helter-Skelter he was indirectly profiting from the mutilation of Sharon Tate and the rest of Manson’s victims. But he wasn’t being enriched by the murders; he was selling a story that the public wanted to hear and his unique perspective on it. So is O.J. Simpson. Making money from a book about a murder is either an unethical exploitation of a tragedy or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then O.J. Simpson’s book is as legitimate as any other author’s. As long as he has information that the public will pay money to acquire, he can sell it for whatever the market will bear, and it is not unethical for him to do so. The murders are the source of his information, but they aren’t what the public is buying when it buys his book.

Much of the public outrage is directed at Judith Regan, the media sleaze-merchant whose publishing arm of HarperCollins signed the book contract with Simpson and whose interview of Simpson “hypothetically” describing the murders will be broadcast on Fox. Again, it’s hard to pin down, from an ethical point of view, exactly what is so outrageous about her conduct. Barbara Walters, on “the View,” got thunderous applause from the studio audience and the smug blessings of resident Crusader without a Clue Rosie O’Donnell when she announced she had turned down the Simpson interview. This is peculiar, since Barbara had no qualms about interviewing the Menendez boys after they had been convicted of blowing away their parents to inherit the family millions. The Menendez brothers, moreover, never told her the truth, holding to their lawyer-crafted defense that their parents were abusing and molesting them. So let’s get this straight: Barbara Walters believes it’s OK to interview convicted murderers who refuse to admit their guilt, but despicable to interview acquitted murderers who decide to tell the truth.

No wonder this makes sense to Rosie. It’s logical and ethical gibberish.

Regan may deserve criticism for agreeing to pay Simpson’s fees directly to his children, since it assists his efforts to keep money away from the families of Nicole and Ron Goldman, still waiting to see any of the 33 million dollars Simpson owes them in damages from their civil suit.. Then again, maybe not. Are we “outraged” that Simpson is trying to provide for the children of the mother he murdered? Would it be more admirable and appropriate for Simpson to refuse payment for the book and interview so as not to be seen as profiting from his crime than to give the money to his kids?

Much of the public outrage centers on O.J.’s two children, in fact. How must they feel to have their father confess to killing their mother so publicly! “Maybe they didn’t even know before,” said one woman interviewed on TV. Interesting ethical position: it is more ethical and less “outrageous” for Simpson to withhold the truth from his kids than to be honest with them. The Scoreboard disagrees.

Here is the ethical verdict on O. J. and his book. There is no rational ethical protocol for the murderer who is acquitted. He can’t send himself to jail even if his conscience gets the better of him and causes him to beg for punishment. As a free man, he has a right to do anything any other citizen can do. Because his very presence is offensive to many, it would be kind and considerate for him to maintain a low profile, but this is difficult and perhaps impossible for a celebrity like O.J. Simpson. It is unreasonable for us to insist that his only ethical course is to leave the country, live in a cave or commit suicide, or to somehow punish himself when the legal system failed to do so.. It cannot be unethical for a free man to live his life the best he can.

Yes, Simpson’s most ethical course would be for him to make every effort not to flaunt the injustice of his freedom. But telling the truth about the murders in any form, even as a “hypothetical” and even twelve years too late, is desirable conduct. Thanks to an erroneous jury verdict, the public record of these famous murders is muddled. The public, the media and historians should know what happened, and only O.J. Simpson has the ability to enlighten them. Similarly, it makes no sense to insist that the media should avoid publicizing Simpson’s story. That is their job. It is also their business. It is not wrong for them to make money in the process, and if they are making money by publicizing what O.J. has to say, it is also fair that he be compensated by them. Prior bad acts do not suspend the principles of ethics. Fair is still fair, even for O.J. Simpson.

It would be more admirable, certainly, for Simpson to tell the truth without compensation, but for the public to be “outraged” that O.J. Simpson is joining the legions of celebrities and politicians who have turned media confessionals into a billion-dollar industry—the same Oprah-loving public that has allowed the industry to bloom— shows selective indignation, to say the least.

O.J. Simpson is a despicable human being by any analysis. His outrageous and unethical act was killing two people, one of whom was the mother of his children. That act remains outrageous, and his acquittal under our system of justice is understandably still a raw nerve for much of America. The public finds it repulsive when it sees videotape of O.J. playing golf, though there is no ethical principle that declares golfing by acquitted murders as wrongful conduct. The public finds it repellant to see young women dating him, though there are no ethical prohibitions against a freed murderer having a social life. All of the outrage flows from the past, not from the present.

Simpson’s book isn’t unethical. The murders that made the book significant were and are the source of the outrage, together with the inexcusable jury verdict that let O.J. avoid punishment for his horrible crime. He still owes America the truth, and if the book is his way of providing it at last, it will do more good than harm.

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