The O.J. Simpson interview: Gripping, gross or both?


Joseph Villarin / AP

A white Ford Bronco, driven by Al Cowlings and carrying O.J. Simpson, is trailed by police cars as it travels on a Southern California freeway on June 17, 1994, in Los Angeles. Cowlings and Simpson led authorities on a chase after Simpson was charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend. Simpson was acquitted at trial.

Tue, Mar 13, 2018 (2 a.m.)

On Sunday night, Fox aired “O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession,” a two-hour special that the network has been promoting for weeks as a shocking, must-see interview that was recently “found.”

Originally shot in 2006, the conversation between Simpson and the publishing magnate Judith Regan was intended then to promote the ReganBooks release of “If I Did It,” described as a “hypothetical” explanation of how the NFL Hall of Famer might have murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman — a crime for which he was acquitted in 1995.

Hosted by Soledad O’Brien, “The Lost Confession” alternated clips from the interview with new commentary from a panel that included Regan, Christopher Darden (the lawyer who helped prosecute the original case), Jim Clemente (a retired FBI profiler), Rita Smith (a spokeswoman for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence), and Eve Shakti Chen (a friend of Brown’s).

Whatever explanations Fox has given for the existence of this special, there’s more to it than just, “Hey, look what we found!” What’s the actual story behind the interview? Why are we just seeing it now? And did we really learn anything from it?

— Why Was It Shelved?

In 2006, Regan employed the ghostwriter Pablo Fenjves to turn conversations with Simpson into “If I Did It.” It initially seemed like the latest coup for ReganBooks, a HarperCollins imprint that was renowned in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s for publishing hot-take political commentary and salacious celebrity memoirs, in addition to popular literature.

But publicity surrounding the project was mostly terrible. The Goldman and Brown families made public statements against both the book and the interview, raising concerns about the prospect of anyone — Simpson, HarperCollins, Fox — making money off murder. As the uproar grew, both the print and TV versions of “If I Did It” were scrapped. Additionally, Regan was fired from her own imprint, for reasons said to be unrelated to the project. (She later sued and won, claiming to have been defamed during her dismissal.)

A version of “If I Did It” did eventually get released in 2007. The Goldmans were granted the rights to the material in order to help satisfy their civil claim against Simpson. They published the book as “If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer” — putting the word “if” in almost imperceptibly tiny letters on the cover.

— Why Is It Airing Now?

According to the executive producer, Terry Wrong, Fox dug up this interview to satisfy the huge demand for more O.J.-related television. The former network executive Preston Beckman — known on Twitter as “the Masked Scheduler” — noted in a blog post that Fox probably intentionally showed it on Sunday night to counterprogram ABC’s premiere of the revived “American Idol.” (“They probably don’t want egg on their face if ‘AI’ returns with an impressive number,” he said.)

— Does O.J. Come Clean?

It certainly seemed that way. Bear in mind that this interview has been edited down from about four hours (according to Regan, in promos Fox sent to TV critics), and that throughout Simpson is referring to the “hypothetical” confession in the book “If I Did It.” In the six minutes in which he talks about the murders, he describes being on the scene with a friend named Charlie — whom the panel believes was just a voice inside his head. It’s all very odd.

That said, when Simpson describes grabbing a knife (“I do remember that part,” he says), and recalls seeing copious amounts of blood, it does not sound all that hypothetical. The interview goes on to cover the aftermath of the crime — including the infamous Bronco chase — and Regan’s questioning about what was going through Simpson’s mind at that time keeps steering him toward explaining his feelings of anger, frustration, depression and yes, guilt.

“The Lost Confession” also offers a glimpse into its subject’s character. It is fascinating to see Simpson blasting the media, all while frequently reminding Regan of his past reputation as a successful and popular guy. He seems to cling to every half-truth about his relationship with Brown that makes him look like he’s the real victim.

— Does It Actually Shine a Light on Domestic Violence?

It definitely does. One argument in favor of airing this interview now is that the panel can contextualize Simpson’s comments in ways that Fox might not have cared to do in 2006. When he confesses to getting “physical” with her on the nights when she called the police, for example, Simpson is quick to note that “she started it,” prompting Darden and others to clarify just how violent and threatening he had been, according to the first responders.

In the present day, Regan justifies her lack of follow-up questions during the original interview by saying that she felt at the time that Simpson was already hanging himself with every word, and that if she pushed him too hard he would walked out. That is a debatable point. But it is remarkable over the course of the interview how often Simpson — unbidden — deflects blame back onto Brown, insisting that the media and the lawyers did not talk enough about her shortcomings during the trial. That is textbook abuser behavior, persistently implying, “She was asking for it.”

Also while the program does not make too much of it, O’Brien’s narration subtly lays out a story of privilege, wherein the authorities (and the public) give a battered woman less credence than the rich, famous man who tormented her. This particular aspect of “The Lost Confession” special — exposing the nature of abuse — clearly mattered to the producers. And to Fox’s credit, each commercial break during the telecast began with a PSA for a domestic violence hotline.

— Final Verdict: Gripping or Gross?

Oh, it’s definitely both. Early on, especially, the recurring reaction shots of a crying Shakti Chen border on the exploitative. There is an extent to which Fox is trying to have it both ways here: cashing in on a valuable piece of tape from its archives, while trying to do some good with it.

But on balance, it is better to have this interview out in the world, rather than locked away. It is a piece of broadcasting and cultural history, which supplements all the other O.J. Simpson coverage that filled the airwaves last year. As unpleasant as “The Lost Confession” is — and though it does not offer any definitive closure — it is still an illuminating part of a story that has been captivating us for more than two decades now, with no signs of losing its pull.

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