Fighting For Our Rights To O.J. and Paris

You may have heard that a few weeks ago, the nation’s most famous ex-murder defendant was picked up on armed robbery charges here in Las Vegas. Or you may have heard that the nation is mired in a seemingly unwinnable and endless war in some Middle Eastern country. Or you may have heard that there’s controversy over whether the president misuses his power to violate privacy, illicitly enrich his cronies and misinform the public.

What? You mean you know about all of those things? Why, that cannot be! Or, at least, the editor of the other alternative weekly, Steve Sebelius, doesn’t think you could possibly be so aware. You’re all too stupid to know about more than one thing!

I was more than a little amused to recognize myself as the fall guy in Sebelius’ column in CityLifea few weeks back following a fun little scrum he and I had on PBS’ Nevada Week In Review on Sept. 21. The biggest Vegas story of the week was the arrest and release of O.J. Simpson on charges he and a group of gunned-up thugs burst into a Palace Station hotel room to “retrieve” some sports memorabilia the ex-football star insisted was his. Now they face a slew of felony charges.

I had covered this situation for The New York Times and acknowledged on the TV program that I was surprised – and grateful, at least from a bankbook point of view – that The Paper of Record had me following the saga on a daily basis as it first unfolded. I never pretended that it was the sort of story that actually made a difference in people’s lives, but whether the fate of the nation is at stake isn’t the only motivation for committing journalism. Sometimes it’s just interesting and weird, and the central figure of the Trial of Last Century being caught up in such a ridiculous scheme in a place as prurient as Las Vegas has all the elements of something interesting and weird.

Sebelius, it was clear, found the entire topic distasteful and insulting to his intelligence and opted to dismiss the situation with the refrain, repeated twice on air and once in print, that this is just a “tale of a few simple felony crimes.” See, I think of a stick-up at the Circle K as a simple felony case; say what you want about the importance of this case, the O.J. mess is nothing if not tangled and complicated. And the charges carry the potential for life in prison, no small issue, either. No, it wouldn’t have rated front-page coverage if not for the famous defendant, but nor would criminal charges against the offspring of a former county commissioner. Someone’s prominence does tend to make an ordinary story extraordinary.

What really ticked Sebelius off on the TV show was when talk turned to the upcoming presidential campaign and I wondered aloud whether an O.J. trial in Vegas in the fall of 2008 would distract the American public from the task at hand of choosing a new president. I wasn’t saying it should do so. I was merely curious if it could, seeing how in 1997 the networks did, after all, split the screen to bring us simultaneous coverage of a State of the Union speech and the verdict in the civil lawsuit against Simpson related to the murder of his ex-wife and her friend.

In Sebelius’ Sept. 21 column, he lamented quite melodramatically that coverage of O.J. equals an abdication of the very duty of all journalists to help the democracy function. It’s a phony argument put forth by whiny elitists who seem to overlook the fact that the public has more access than in any time in world history to any sort of news they wish to consume. Anyone who wants to know about global warming, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers or the fate of farmers in Angola can find more than they can possible handle. Paris Hilton and O.J. Simpson aren’t displacing anything, and the Review-Journal in particular devotes a lot of ink to rather obscure international stories.

“There are scoundrels in this country who are trying to make off with billions, to say nothing of the Constitution itself,” Sebelius wrote. “Told right, that story would rightfully banish O.J. coverage.” But why? Why isn’t there room for both? Is there really a paucity of serious coverage in the New York Times or the Washington Post or across the blogosphere of those very issues? What’s the big deal if celebrity antics fascinate us, too? By his own account, Sebelius himself likes a good piece of Britney gossip mixed in with his Dina Titus diet; why does he fancy that he’s a better news consumer than everyone else, with license to scold?

Sebelius cites a bumper sticker wondering why people aren’t more outraged. It’s sort of surprising someone advocating more substance is reduced to slogans, but the answer is that there’s enough misery and injustice in the world that by this logic there would never, ever be a moment’s rest from the outrage.

And, by the by, it’s not just us Americans. I’ve spent considerable amounts of time in China and Europe and I can assure you that the exploits of the rich and famous and the details of lurid, unusual crimes are all the rage everywhere. Even in parts of the world where poverty is rife and disease is widespread, human beings are distracted and enthralled by stories of the strange things other human beings do.

The irony is that Sebelius edits an entire magazine. He has a whole staff of reporters at his disposal. And when have you ever seen CityLife do the sort of in-depth, game-changing, edgy journalism that alternative weeklies were born to provide, the sort that you’d find in the Chicago Reader or the Village Voice or the Westword in Denver? You know, the sort that actually exposes real scandal the rest of the media simply can’t ignore? Oh, sure, every so often there’s a long piece about, say, the Monofail or some other easy target, but I cannot think of a single instance where Sebelius’ own publication blew the lid off anything that shocked the pants off the town.

Indeed, the other precious purpose of the alternative press is supposed to be keeping the mainstream media in check, and yet CityLife’s Media Issue this week offers such intriguing discoveries as the notion that newspapers sometimes make goofy mistakes that require corrections and – get this! – Spanish-language TV news is hot! And that’s an improvement over last year’s issue, in which the fate of an affable local weatherman merited front-page prominence. One shocking expose indicated, and I’m still not sure I believe it, that women in TV news are often hired in part for their pleasing physical appearances!

Recently I was confronted with a choice of whether to move this column to CityLife. Around the same time, I was embroiled in a controversy over the fact that Jerry Lewis’ publicist tried to charge me $20,000 for an interview. Sebelius wondered on his blog why anyone would even want to interview Jerry Lewis in the first place.

As I weighed which publication I wished to run my columns, focused largely on the Strip and Vegas pop culture, I considered this comment. Why wouldn’t I, as co-host of a popular celeb-interview podcast about Vegas, want to interview a Vegas legend like Lewis? Is it really so difficult to imagine that someone like Lewis would make for a fascinating conversation? (He did, by the way.)

But, more importantly, the question I needed to ask myself was: Do I really want to wonder if my editor thinks my pieces are too frivolous for his alleged high standards? When put that way, it wasn’t a tough decision.

Steve Friess is a Vegas-based writer who contributes regularly to Newsweek, USA Today, The New York Times, Vegas and many others. Contact him at [email protected]

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