What It Was Like to Break the O.J. Simpson Story

A former executive producer at KCBS talks about covering the O.J. Simpson case and how it changed the climate of the media.

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If you were living in the U.S. in 1994, then you know there was no way in hell you could have avoided O.J. Simpson. The story was everywhere you turned—or so I'm told. I was three years old when it happened, and my family had moved overseas before the verdict came out on Oct. 3, 1995. Still, "O.J. Simpson" is a name I've known all my life. For almost a year and a half, and even for a long time afterwards, the O.J. Simpson case was the talk of the town. On June 13, 1994, Simpson's wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found murdered in Brentwood, Calif., and star athlete and beloved celeb O.J. Simpson quickly became a murder suspect. News outlets picked up the story right away, sensationalizing an already scandalous tale that mixed race and gender politics with tabloid culture. 

Now the O.J. Simpson case is the talk of the town once again, thanks to the new anthology series from American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy, American Crime Story, with its star-studded first season, The People v. O.J. Simpson, following the trial that shook the nation. (Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays Simpson; John Travolta, Sarah Paulson, David Schwimmer, Selma Blair, Courtney B. Vance, and Connie Britton also star.) Ahead of the series premiere on FX tonight, we spoke with Richard Ayoub, former executive producer at Los Angeles' KCBS-TV, the station broke the O.J. news, thanks to a combination of luck (their reporter jogging past his house) and fast response from the news team. Over 20 years later, Ayoub recalls the riotous response to the case, seeing Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran out in L.A. social circles, and how O.J. Simpson changed the climate of news media and even reality television.

I was born in the '90s and lived most of my life overseas, so I don't have much personal experience with the O.J. Simpson case. But I know you were very much involved with it. 
I was executive producer at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, and we were the ones who actually broke the story when the murders happened. 

So when the bodies were found?
Yes, I remember so vividly. David Horowitz, who was our consumer reporter, lived in Brentwood, and he was jogging around in O.J. Simpson’s neighborhood. O.J. Simpson lived on Rockingham, in Brentwood, and Nicole Brown Simpson lived on Bundy, which was just a few minutes away. And so David Horowitz was jogging near O.J.’s house and saw all the police cars there and knew something was up. He obviously knew it was O.J.’s house, so we immediately sent a reporter out there and we were the first on the air that police were at O.J. Simpson’s house.

So it was really good luck.
Yeah, and it’s also having a reporter who has knowledge of the neighborhood, and the celebrity and everything else. So we were first on the scene, first to report it, and we were all over that story. Just a huge, shocking story. He was this athlete who won the Heisman Trophy and who was an American hero, and the police were at his house.

And this story just blew up immediately and everyone else picked it up afterwards?
Yes. The story blew up because he was a movie star, a super athlete, a black man married to a white woman, and it was a murder. To this day, he’s still the most famous person ever accused of murder. 

How close were you to the actual scene?
I was there in our control room giving reporters the information, telling them what to do. I was coordinating our live coverage, our future coverage, but any person who was in news at that time was just fascinated by the scene, so of course I drove by, and I had to look at it and you saw the huge crowds of people, and what happened. It became a really bizarre tourist trap. 

So a bunch of people were coming to look at the scene?
There were so many looky-loos that neighbors couldn’t get through, they couldn’t take their kids to school, they couldn’t get out, there were reporters on the scene, there were tourists—it was craziness. So they had to shut off Sunset so you couldn’t get from Sunset to Rockingham anymore. And to this day you still can’t.

Oh wow.
And then the same thing happened at Bundy, where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered, so what they’ve done there is they’ve actually changed the street address of the townhouse where she was living.

I want to know what your reaction was like, immediately upon hearing the news, and what the conversation surrounding it was like, with your coworkers and such.
Well we were all in shock because O.J. Simpson has this charismatic, dynamic smile, and you couldn't ever envision him first of all being arrested, second being accused of murder. It was just a state of shock, that this person, who America grew to love, would be accused of such a heinous crime. And as you learn more about the crime, and more about the domestic violence history, it was just even more shocking.

What was your personal verdict upon hearing what happened. Did you think he did it?
As a journalist it was really hard to tell at that point. We didn’t know all the things that came out in the trial. And we didn’t know that he had a history of domestic violence with Nicole.

You didn’t know? 
We didn’t know at that time, no. All we knew was that O.J. Simpson was in handcuffs, and the police were at his house. That’s what we knew. And then, of course, as more information came out, all of those details started coming together. 

Right. How do you remember race and gender and his celebrity status playing a role in the coverage of it? 
Well at that time, you know this was the early '90s. Race… People didn’t see O.J. Simpson as a black man, they saw him as a super athlete and an American hero. But, for people who were intrigued by interracial relationships, the fact that his wife was a gorgeous blonde woman just added to the mystique and the mystery involving the murder. 

I know the one talked about a lot is the Time magazine cover where his mugshot is darkened.
Oh yeah, absolutely. To make him look more dangerous. 

Did you cover the case basically from the beginning to the very end?
Yes, because we broke the story and when it went to trial we did wall-to-wall coverage. First of all, during the Bronco chase we broke into programming and I believe the World Series (Ed. note: It was the NBA Finals) was on at the time, and one of our competitors actually showed the World Series and had a box of the Bronco chase. You could not go anywhere without seeing that Bronco chase and without wanting to know what was going on in it. We had a phenomenal helicopter pilot who heard conversation between O.J. and the police, and heard that he was threatening suicide, that he was in that Bronco driving very slowly and the police were chasing him, and people along the route would run to the neighborhoods that they thought he was at and wave at him! It was crazy!

Yeah! There's the Bronco scene in The People v. O.J. Simpson—anywhere he goes people’s eyes are on him, they would stop their cars on the highway.
Yes! That’s exactly what happened. It was as if he had been having a parade and people had stopped along the route. They had no fear of him, they wanted to see him. Like, that’s weird. We have high-speed chases in L.A. all the time, and no one wants to get near them. It’s dangerous, the people are maybe on drugs or maybe they’re drunk, no one wants to get anywhere near that but O.J. Simpson, it was a slow-speed chase, and people wanted to be near him. And they actually cheered him on.

To drive away?
They were just cheering “O.J.!” Showing him support. 

Oh, really? Would you say most people considered him innocent then?
I wouldn’t say that. I would say, as the trial went on there were clear thoughts that some people thought he was guilty, some thought he was innocent. And as coverage went on, it did go through racial lines. African-Americans were more prone to think he was innocent.

This case itself feels so much like a reality TV show.
Oh my god! It’s so unbelievable that it actually happened.

And people were even more invested in it than in any reality show today.
Yeah, people were addicted to it, they wanted to see every single day. They would watch it for hours. People would watch it at work, wherever they would go, and they were completely distracted by it and, as you know, it created a lot of media stars. Star Jones, who used to be on The View, was a prosecutor, and she was on during that time and got a TV career out of it. Dan Abrams was a lawyer and now he's a prominent news man. 

How else would you say pop culture has changed from the trial, and I guess media in general?
Well this was an interesting time because Dominick Dunne was writing for Vanity Fair, and he would mix murder with dinner parties. So when he would write his monthly column it would be like, “I had dinner with this socialite, Betsy Bloomingdale, and we were talking about the O.J. Simpson murder.” What happened was that murder and society became united with fascination. And there was this restaurant called Eclipse, which is where John Varvatos is today, on Melrose and Robertson, in West Hollywood, and this restaurant was partially owned by Robert Shapiro (one of Simpson's attorneys). Every night people would go there to see Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran, all the attorneys, all the media people, all the people involved in and around the case. I would go too, and it was just amazing to see the way they would treat Robert and Johnnie Cochran. Even if they didn’t agree with O.J. being innocent or guilty, they still saw Robert and Johnnie Cochran as stars. 

What about  Robert Kardashian?
Robert Kardashian—he was the least famous and least charismatic. It’s so interesting that all his daughters are so gorgeous and beautiful, but he was like an afterthought. The ones who really had bravado when they walked in were Cochran and Shapiro.

So then what was your reaction when the verdict came out?
I was shocked. I really thought that he was going to be found guilty. I was shocked. And Johnnie Cochran just found the most brilliant line that stuck in everyone’s head: “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Ah yes, that one.
Yeah, and that’s the thing. Of course if you’re going to put a glove on someone accused of murder, it’s not going to fit them, you know. They don’t want it to fit in the first place. Second, it’s dried up with blood on it, and his hand was swollen from arthritis, so there were a lot of things that happened, but that’s the one thing. And the defense did a good job of questioning the police department’s procedures in capturing evidence.

Right. So if I’m correct, he just sort of half-assedly put it on, right, in court?
Yeah, but he was wearing like a latex glove, under it. It didn’t go on all the way. If you’re really going to try and fit into something, you make it fit. I don’t think he wanted to make it fit. The thing that also seemed to ring true was, I think, that he honestly believed that he was innocent, and he was so convincing in saying that.

What do you think about it now?
I think that, unfortunately, the prosecution didn’t do a great job, and I think the civil case was done to make up for the prosecution. I think that the judge in Las Vegas who sent him to prison was trying to make up for everything else. 

To make up for messing up for that "Not Guilty" verdict back in the day.

You said you were shocked at the verdict in '95. Would you say most people were shocked?
Yes, and even when we did the coverage, you heard screams and yells. He had supporters outside the courtroom every day with signs, and they cheered when he came out. But then we had cameras in bars and different places and you saw their mouths gasp. You also saw in the courtroom. You even saw Robert Kardashian—if you look at his face when the verdict is rendered, you will see he himself is shocked.

So this went on for almost a year and a half. Did you feel like there was any fatigue?

What were the most exciting points besides the Bronco, the verdict...?
Some of the testimony was fascinating. People were intrigued by Mark Fuhrman, the officer on the stand. They thought he was handsome. The most boring part was when they talked about the DNA. That was really challenging for people to understand and get into.

Did you choose to cover it in the more sensational way?
Yeah well, we did live coverage and then there was a point when our audience got fatigued, so we had to pull back, but we would still do coverage on all of our newscasts, and when you do a minute or a half or two minutes on a trial that goes for hours, of course you’re not going to go into the scientific stuff. You’re going to do stuff that’s more interesting. When Kato Kaelin was on the stand, everyone was interested in that.

What do you think it would be like if it happened now, with Twitter and Facebook and the celebrity gossip sites?
Oh my god. TMZ would be all over it. Well, Harvey [Levin, founder of TMZ] was all over it even as a reporter for KCBS. So his crew at TMZ would be all over it and it would be wall-to-wall coverage and it would be crazy and they would be going after the attorneys, and the judge, and everyone else. As it is, the coverage was very aggressive. I think it had all the elements of a true crime story that people are fascinated with. It had all the makings of the perfect 48 Hour story, Dateline story, and it was unfolding live before their very eyes. People were addicted to it, and when it was over, people had a little withdrawal, because people were used to watching coverage, and learning things, and everything else. And it did change the way we cover news.

How, would you say?
We are more aggressive. Not that I’m doing news right now but people on TV news are more aggressive about cameras in the courtroom—getting there first. If it's anything involving a celebrity, doing more background research. If the O.J. Simpson case had happened today? TMZ would have had the background information on domestic violence earlier than we found out back then. They would have gone immediately and looked at his history and his criminal reports and obviously we did that at the time but with the Internet, that would have come out a lot faster.

Do you think it would have changed the outcome?
That’s a good question. It might have.

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