The Power of Collective Outrage

The following essay was included in True’s email editions for the week of 19 November 2006.

I had reserved this space tonight for a major rant. What makes one of my rants “major”? I was actually going to call for a boycott and a letter-writing campaign — I don’t recall ever doing that before. I wanted to show how collective outrage can make a difference. But you know what happened? Collective outrage grew on its own, quickly rising to a spontaneous chorus of “NO!” And the perpetrator listened.

That perpetrator was the Fox network and ReganBooks — or, more accurately, their shared parent, News Corp.

And the perpetration was indeed outrageous: a TV special based on O.J. Simpson’s new book, If I Did It, which told how he “would have” committed the murder of his ex-wife and an innocent passer-by “if” he had done it.

The book’s editor, Judith Regan, had rationalized the book’s publication by saying she considered the book Simpson’s “confession” and figured the huge royalties that would come from such a book would go to his kids. Uh huh.

Way back in early 2000, a Fox network executive pledged that the network’s exploitation shows are “gone, they’re over.” He promised to eliminate “anything that is exploitative, that reeks of desperation, anything that’s merely out for ratings.” I was so dubious that I slugged (titled) the story very simply: “When?

Exploitative and Reeks of Desperation

Yet here they were, ready to air a show — during sweeps no less — which gave a murderer who had beaten the system a platform to talk about how he snuffed out two lives and walked free. He “searches” for the “real killers” on any golf course that will let him in, using the liberal homesteading laws of Florida to shield his assets from seizure after losing a wrongful death suit.

And OK, let’s say you are one of the 1 percent of the public who doesn’t think he’s guilty; he’d still be making profit from a specific murder he was intimately involved in. “Exploitation” indeed.

Why would Simpson do it? First, he didn’t: he admitted the book was ghost-written under his name. Second, there’s no worry that he’ll be prosecuted again, since he was already found “not guilty” by a jury, and by law he can’t be put on trial for murder again even if he swore he did it.

Follow the Money

So obviously he did it for the money. How do I know? He said so.

“I made it clear that it’s blood money,” he said, “but it’s no different than any of the other writers who did books on this case.” Except the other writers didn’t actually commit the murders, eh? He said the cash would be “an opportunity for my kids to get their financial legacy.”

Yet even though Simpson and ReganBooks and Fox were all ready to profit from that murder, the head of News Corp., Rupert Murdoch, apparently personally ordered the show off the air and the book canceled; the latter, especially, is an unprecedented move.

It’s unclear whether Simpson will have to repay his advance, which is said to be as much as $3.5 million, but Simpson said he has already spent the money (so much for his kids’ “legacy”!)

News Corp. announced it would destroy all printed copies of the book.

And Public Outrage Worked

Some Fox affiliates had already refused to air the show. Others had decided to donate all the local ad time to abuse shelters, anti-violence organizations and such. Borders books had said it would donate any profits on sales of the book to charity.

But it wasn’t enough: public outrage grew. The chorus of “NO!” got so loud that Murdoch couldn’t ignore it, even if Regan and Fox execs did, and actually apologized for his company’s role in the fiasco.

And with that, the power of collective outrage was proven.

That, dear readers, is why I do editorials and rants …and many are categorized as both. Because I think when you know about outrageous problems, you’re more likely to be outraged. And the more people who are outraged about a problem like, say, Zero Tolerance policies in our schools, or truly frivolous lawsuits, the more the chorus of voices decrying that outrage will rise — and the more the people in charge will hear it (and, more importantly, will rush to fix the problem to stop the chorus).

It really does work, even though it’s tough to get people to pay attention to issues that aren’t right in front of them. We’re all busy people living busy lives, but if we don’t say “NO!”, who will?

November 27 Update

After reading the above, Michael in Texas retorted: “And free speech takes another blow — from a staunch supporter.”

No, not even close: this is not a blow against free speech, it’s an example of free speech in action. The government didn’t step in, the publisher did. It’s up to the owner of the company to decide what the company should publish, not the government. And indeed, not the teeming masses.

But the teeming masses also have the right of free speech, to express their disapproval. News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch heard that free speech loud and clear, and then exercised his — by making the decision himself, not with government intervention, that the planned book and broadcast were in bad taste and simply canceled them both. So “with that, the power of collective outrage was proven.”

– – –

In September 2007, Simpson led a gang into a room at the Palace Station hotel-casino in Las Vegas and took sports memorabilia at gunpoint. Simpson admitted to police to taking the items, but claimed they had previously been stolen from him. He denied breaking into the hotel room, or that he or anyone with him carried a gun.

Simpson was charged with multiple felony counts, including criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, assault, robbery, and using a deadly weapon.

Simpson was found guilty of all charges, and sentenced to a total of 33 years in prison, with the possibility of parole after about nine years. At his parole hearing on July 20, 2017, the board decided to grant Simpson parole. His release date is October 1, 2017 — he will have served nine years.

– – –

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17 Comments on “The Power of Collective Outrage

  1. I came across this quote today, and was reminded again of this story:
    If a book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But for God’s sake, let us freely hear both sides if we choose. -Thomas Jefferson, third US president, architect, and author (1743-1826)

  2. I think you got it right, Randy, you pretty much said it all. If OJ did do “it”, it’s abhorrent he should profit from it. If he didn’t, then it’s all lies and not worth the paper it’s printed on. However, if millions of dollars were made on the sale of this book, that would be entirely the fault of the obscene and voyeuristic tastes of the reading public. By their actions will you know them.

    Also, I don’t think Rupert Murdoch deserves any praise for this decision. His antics in London, which have been proven, show clearly what kind of “journalist” he is. No, he only cancelled the book and show out of fear of what his advertising sponsors would do to him.

  3. Our perceptual limitations can be profound. Human truth-awareness and intuition triggers remain mysteries. First impressions can be good indicators if we allow ourselves to believe what our instincts tell us. Sometimes….

    Perhaps it comes down to whether others can fool our instincts. Or perhaps it comes down to whether we choose to listen. The worst kind of deception is the “self” kind. We all do it at various points in our lives.

    I suppose the grifters depend on that.

  4. While your story demonstrated outage about the profiteering from Simpson, many of us express outrage in smaller ways to get things done. What should be published more is the stories of this who stood up against this kind of behavior. But it can be done in quiet ways.

    For example, I will share in social media any warnings about misleading mail that comes in a mailbox. I will also express good principles that I follow to never do business with a company that resorts to deceptive practices in order to trick consumers buying their products. When others see that, they might consider doing the same, now knowing they are not alone.

    When I was an elected official, there was a man who decorated his truck with all kinds of anti-gay slogans. Several local communities sought to silence him through resolutions. I was approached to do the same, to which I replied, “I served in the military so that people like him could speak as they want. I may not like his methods or message, but that is his right.” He parked his truck for a short time in our community, but before long he was gone. I chose not to be “politically popular” in trying to silence a dissenting and unpopular message, and instead stand on principles of this land for all to speak up. I never had to vote publicly on the resolution, because others were too fearful in not having unanimity in passing it. Some may say that in doing so, I permitted hate to prosper, but I believe I fostered more thinking by individuals, than having them pass that effort onto others to pass a resolution against free speech.

    I’m grateful to authors like Randy who do so much to help sustain the ideals that people, ordinary people, can do extraordinary things in small and simple ways… And succeed! For it is truly a loss to all when good men and women do nothing and abdicate thinking and common sense to others who have a propensity to demonstrate the lack thereof.

    Bravo for upholding free speech even though you disagreed with the message being “spoken” — because that’s what free speech IS: it’s specifically about speech we disagree with, since there’s no need to have “protections” for the speech we do agree with, is there?! -rc

    • Reply to Randy’s comment. But we do need protections for speech we agree with since there will always be someone who disagrees with it.

  5. When re-reading this, I couldn’t help but think about Simpson’s increasingly violent and antisocial behavior in the context of a recent study that found a more-or-less linear correlation between time and intensity of playing football, and brain damage. Of brains donated for scientific study, 17% of the brains of high-school football players, 77% of the brains of college players, and 99% of brains of professional NFL players showed brain damage, and the longer and harder they had played, the more damage was found.

    Excellent insight. -rc

    • I am a former, High School, College and semi-professional football player so this particular study is of concern to me.

      I have to point out that in the study of deceased, former football players brains, 100% of the brains that were studied were donated by family members who felt that their loved ones suffered from CTE because of football related injuries. What was not studied were the brains of those who did not exhibit signs of CTE while they were alive.

      I wish there was an accurate way to test for CTE in living players.

      There is no evidence to support that O.J. Simpson suffers from CTE and without complete representation of ALL former football players, or an accurate test of a living persons brain.

    • Think how much worse it is for Rugby players. They play without helmets. We used to laugh at Gridiron players, call them wussies etc.

      Now we are seeing worldwide more and more ex and current rugby players struggling with the effects of concussion from playing the game. And carrying on as if there was no issue only to come a cropper a short time down the path of their lifetime. And, in some cases a long time after.

      And yet it didn’t used to be that way. So what is the difference now? Professional sport. Where winning at all costs is the name of the game. Money, money, money.

    • Randy from Michigan beat me to making that point. If you only study people with symptoms of what you are looking for you will necessarily find a high incidence of it, not a true representation of the problem. R.C. , I’m surprised and disappointed that you failed to comment on this in your response.

      My goal is not to reply to every point, but to lead a discussion. Sure enough, Randy in Michigan weighed in. I don’t see that as a problem, but rather a success. -rc

  6. Just one comment on this statement “let’s say you are one of the 1 percent of the public who doesn’t think he’s guilty”.

    Randy, you are seriously overestimating the unanimity of people of this country, and how much they agree with your view.

    At the time you wrote this, more than a quarter (26%) of white people did not think OJ was guilty, and a decisive majority of black people (55%) did not believe he was guilty. Even now, 17% or whites and 43% of blacks still do not believe OJ was guilty. That’s way more than your 1% figure!

    Possibly your impression of this is influenced by your circumstances: a middle-aged white man living in the rural hills of Colorado. I know that I, as a decades-long officer in a political party, white, senior, urban-dweller, am recently finding myself having a hard time understanding many of the young people becoming active in my party, and even some of our candidates. To the point of wondering ‘how in the world can they possibly think that?’

    Tim, you are seriously underestimating the effect of hyperbole on humor, which in this case was designed to add a little levity to a serious topic. -rc

    • Randy, if the effect was to add a little levity to a serious topic, then I’m sorry I see that as an epic fail on your part.

      Not only did “I” not see any levity I also did not see it as hyperbole. But then I never really followed the OJ trial in its minutiae and have no way of knowing how many people did, or didn’t think he was guilty.

      Considering the sentence immediately previous started “He ‘searches’ for the ‘real killers’ on any golf course that will let him in,” I just don’t see how anyone could NOT understand I’m adding levity to a serious topic. -rc

  7. I’m surprised that my immediate reaction to this particular situation hasn’t already been commented on, so I’ll throw this in as a reminder to us all. The fact is that for the most part, many people would watch the show and buy the book. We could all stop this situation from happening again by simply not watching and buying. The problem is that we as a people tend towards the morbid. The news, tv shows, movies, and books show this succinctly. The more violent and sexual, the more “extreme” the theme, the larger the audience. If you want to do something small to help stop those who perpetuate things, simply tune them out yourself and urge those around you to do the same. We can rant and rage but ultimately it won’t stop as long as we as the audience are so engrossed in it. Just my 2¢.

    Yes, it would help — a little — to boycott such exploitation. But, as you say, many would watch for the reasons you suggest. Still, we can either let them push the line beyond all reason, or we can all stand on the line and defend it, as happened here. And it worked — showing “the power of collective outrage.” The best part: it IS a power, and it’s good to remind people that we have that power, so we can do it again, because “they” will continue to push all sorts of lines. -rc

  8. “It’s unclear whether Simpson will have to repay his advance, which is said to be as much as $3.5 million, but Simpson said he has already spent the money (so much for his kids’ “legacy”!)”

    My guess is that he won’t have to repay it, and News Corp probably wouldn’t have a leg to stand on to try and get that money. After all, Simpson held up his end of the agreement. He provided them with a book, and it was News Corp who decided to cancel its sale. I’m no lawyer, though, so all of this could be wrong. I guess it would depend on how the contract was written.

    I agree, and noted that he had already spent it by the time this happened. -rc

  9. A little aged now. Paleolithic in internet age.

    However the message remains. Speech we disagree with must be protected. I for one would rather have the hateful out and loud where I can note their opinions and avoid their company. Trying to forbid this sort of speech does not end the opinion that cause it. It just drives them where they cannot have the harsh light of day shone on them.

    Better to have the haters in the open.

  10. From the information that came out during the OJ trial, I would have found him innocent. Do I believe he did it? Yes, probably, but the prosecution butchered the trial.

    There is a big difference between thinking the trial did not prove he was guilty and thinking he is innocent.

    • I agree on what you say.

      Maybe its time to do it the Scottish way. Guilty, Not Guilty, Not proven. In the last case the person can be tried again.

      Does it happen often? Apparently seldom.

  11. I agree with Larry from Pennsylvania. What I saw of the trial, the prosecution sure botched their case.

    Too many questions unanswered: Did he got over the fence behind the property thereby dropping the bloody glove behind the outbuilding that Cato was living in or drive to the front of the house and park the Bronco outside the gate with blood all over the console? How did the console get covered in blood since it was his left hand that was cut? Did he keep his left arm across his chest so it would bleed there while steering with only his right hand and it being inconvenienced/blocked by his left arm? Why was the TV footage of the estate showing the Bronco parked INSIDE the gate in front of the garage when the police said they found it OUTSIDE the gate and jumped the fence without a warrant because of the blood leading from the car up the driveway to the house? (They said it was legal to enter without the warrant as they felt someone was injured and may have needed medical care.)

    There was also no mention of a bloody hand in the limo going to the airport, at airport check-in, in the limo in Chicago or at check-in to the hotel. The only blood in Chicago was in a towel in his room that he claimed he used to stem the blood flow when he broke a glass upon receiving a phone call advising him of the murder. If he was bleeding that much in the glove, the Bronco, his home and the hotel, where is all the blood between the house and hotel?

    Another issue I have was that, in watching the trial and the motions made by both teams of lawyers, I saw OJ display no emotion when his team scored points with motions yet smile/smirk when the prosecution scored points. My question is who, on trial for murder, is happy to see the prosecution winning its motions? The only answer I can come up with is that the person is not guilty but knows who is and likes seeing the prosecution proceeding with a case that they have no real proof for while he’s protecting the real murderer. Whomever that may be.

    I like Paul from New Zealand’s option: Guilty, Not Guilty, Not Proven. Force the police to accept that it’s possible they jumped to a conclusion and do more digging. With “Not Proven”, if and/or when they reach a final decision, he could be charged with murder again or conspiracy, hiding a fugitive and murder again as being a party if not the murderer.


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