It is tempting to compare the Bill Cosby trial to the O.J. Simpson trial. And more than a few have. Cosby is a mega celebrity. He’s been practically a household name for decades. He’s got a lot of money. And before his fall and disgrace, he was much admired, and lauded, by millions as a man who embodied the best in fatherhood and family. This is where the similarity with Simpson ends, in and out of court. There was allure and glamor to Simpson’s film and celebrated football career. But he didn’t come close to attaining the wealth and universal fame and admiration the public had for Cosby.
It was really the heavy-duty charges and their sensationalism that gripped the media and much of the public in the Simpson case for months on end. He was charged with double murder; and, one of the victims was his estranged wife; his white estranged wife. It was this clash of race and gender that insured that the case would be the subject of endless debate and chatter. It was the first time that a major celebrity figure had faced a double murder charge, a capital crime. This further raised both the legal and the media stakes in the case.
The TV cameras in the court captured the legal wrangling and drama in the case. This gave millions their first real glimpse into the often arcane, and inner workings of the court system. Simpson’s attorneys, most notably, Johnnie Cochran, had already made names for themselves in other high-profile cases before the Simpson trial.
The Cosby trial will come and go and the public will quickly move on. Cosby is not O.J.
But the trial now transformed Cochran, and the other principal legal combatants, into major media celebrities almost overnight. It also turned the slow drift of much of the mainstream media toward tabloid sleaze sensationalism into a headlong rush. Staid mainstream publications that in times past would have back-paged a murder case, even a celebrity criminal case, morphed into the National Enquirer, Star and the legion of other tabloids. A gaggle of daytime gossipy talk shows has since successfully parlayed innuendo, rumor, half-truths and outright lies into hugely profitable empires and ratings bonanzas. Cochran also understood that attorney star power had colossal value in giving him the ability to spin, massage, and message the defense’s case to give the defense an edge. His seemingly impromptu press conferences outside of court were masterpieces in media spin.
The Simpson case dragged on so long that it spun off yet another growth industry. An array of legal and media pundits became familiar faces on nightly TV, dissecting, debating, and endlessly speculating on every racial and legal tidbit of the case. Then there was the racial divide. The Simpson case institutionalized that term. It became the requisite standard that packs of pollsters, commentators, and researchers would use to quantify and analyze everything from trials to political campaigns in which a racial angle could be gleaned. The Simpson case didn’t die after his acquittal. The mere mention of his trial two decades later still generates fierce debate over his guilt or innocence. A 2017 academy award winning documentary stirred just as much debate over Simpson’s guilt or innocence, and the racial passions that the case ignited, as if it was yesterday.
The Cosby case won’t come close to matching that. He is charged with sexual assault. This is not a minor charge, and he has drawn the righteous wrath and condemnation of women’s groups, and sexual abuse victims. But it’s not double murder, with one of the victims, a white woman. Thus, the case has not stirred anywhere near the level of public fascination and rage as in the Simpson case. Cosby was not jailed for months before the trial as Simpson was. His pockets were deep enough to string the start of his trial out for more than a year. During that time, he stayed virtually invisible from the media and the public eye. His legal team is a crack team. But they do not have the celebrity, and name recognition cachet that Simpson’s attorneys had. His trial venue is in Pittsburgh, which is in Allegheny County. The location does not have the star struck, mediagenic allure of Los Angeles.
The O.J. case was the complete social, racial, celebrity, gender, and tabloid package. The murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman allegedly by O.J. heightened racial tensions, as well as public awareness about domestic violence. It stirred fury against the double standard of wealth and celebrity privilege in the legal system. It elevated celebrity murder cases to media tabloid sensationalism. And, it sparks furious debate about these issues, and Simpson’s guilt or innocence, decades later. The Cosby trial will do none of those things. It will come and go and the public will quickly move on. Cosby is not O.J.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is author of Cosby: The Clash of Race, Sex and Celebrity (Amazon Kindle). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.