What the brief marriage of Fox, Regan Books, and O.J. Simpson means for our culture

By Henry Goldblatt
January 04, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

For a few weeks in November, it felt like the mid-’90s all over again. Democrats were in vogue in Washington, D.C., Seinfeld‘s Michael Richards was making headlines, and Fox, which had once sworn off tacky reality specials, was queuing up a doozy. If I Did It, Here’s How It Happened, based on a book of a similar name, was set to feature O.J. Simpson telling publisher Judith Regan exactly how he murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman — as a purely hypothetical exercise, of course. Suddenly, decade-old photos of the trial were everywhere — that glove, the Bruno Magli shoe prints, the protests over the verdict. Names that had faded — Lance Ito, Marcia Clark, the late Johnnie Cochran, and (give us strength) Kato Kaelin — came flooding back. It was as if Fox and HarperCollins (where Regan has her imprint) picked at the scab covering the racial rift this trial represents and blood spurted anew.

Much was on the line for both companies. Fox — which first heard about the proposed project last spring, but didn’t inquire about its availability until an executive saw a newspaper item about Regan’s book last month — has performed dismally this fall. Ratings are down 4 percent, on top of a 17 percent drop last autumn. An O.J. special, particularly one that dangled the tantalizing possibility of a confession, would attract plenty of gawkers. And on the subject of gawkers, ReganBooks head Judith Regan, who has pretty much made a career out of shepherding works that would make Jackie Collins look like Tolstoy (three words: Jenna Jameson autobiography), was looking for her next big splash. She defended her choice to publish the Simpson quasi-tell-all with a 2,000-plus-word statement, saying that she is a domestic abuse survivor and claiming, ”I never lost my desire for [O.J.’s] conviction. And if Marcia Clark couldn’t do it, I sure wanted to try.”

By the time News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch canceled the book and the special six days after the infamous announcement (much terser than Regan, he took just 34 words, including ”We are sorry for any pain this has caused the families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson”), it was a relief. Producers of Fox’s most popular show, House, did not want to run promos for the medical drama during the special because they were afraid their program would be sullied. Several Fox affiliates also pulled out. And in a brilliant bit of irony, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly called the special ”indefensible and a low point in American culture.” In the end, there wasn’t anyone, save for perhaps Regan and Simpson, left to defend the project.

And now? It’s a shame that Rupert Murdoch can’t cancel the events of the past week, too. The feelings that were evoked — the judges and lawyers at Simpson’s trial were out for celebrity, not justice; the judicial system is racially biased; freedom can be bought with enough money and fame — seem just as fresh as they were 11 years ago. For better or worse, entertainment executives are quick to touch sensitive issues: It took less than five years for studios and networks to make three 9/11 movies. But there’s nothing about this particular project that honors the dead or educates the public. So, Hollywood, the next time you decide to unearth O.J. for financial gain, how about leaving him — and us — alone?