O.J. stood for Orenthal James, not orange juice, but no one cared. O.J. Simpson was the greatest running back ever to play American football. He was also good-looking, bright, articulate, polished. He was perfect. He became a movie star.
And then his former wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, were murdered. He was tried in the most publicized, and certainly most watched, trial in history. He spent millions and got himself acquitted of criminal charges, though later he was sued in civil court and held responsible for the deaths and was ordered to pay the family $33,500,000. The evidence that Mr. Simpson committed the murder was overwhelming.
Though free, Mr. Simpson has struggled to maintain his life style. He gets $400,000 a year from his N.F.L. pension that can not be touched, and he has a house, in Florida ironically, that also can not be touched. But, alas, this is not enough.
To supplement his income, Mr. Simpson has written a fictional version of the murder, aptly titled "If I Did It," scheduled to hit the market Nov. 30. The book launch will be preceded by two interviews on Fox TV., Nov 27th and Nov 29th. Mr. Simpson will receive an advance of several million dollars, with more to come from royalty sales.
The excitement is based on the claim that Mr. Simpson is confessing, though it really is not a confession: the book is fiction, inverted the tradition in which Norman Mailer wrote non-fiction full of what he called "factoids", or fictions that are logically true, and coherent with what we do know, but are not sure that actually happened. Whether Mr. Simpson's twist on the literary genre created by Mailer and Tom Wolfe constitutes the creation of a new literary genre is likely to be the subject of academic debate in years to come. I am quite sure that Mr. Simpson was not thinking of this when he, and his unnamed ghostwriter, wrote the book.
The book itself is, we are told, brutal and banal, but that hardly matters. Our real interest here is in News Corp., owner of both the book publisher, Regan Books, and Fox News Network, which will air the interviews.
News Corp, owned by Robert Murdoch, is one of the half-dozen conglomerates that make up the entertainment industry oligopoly, a group including Disney, SONY, Time Warner, Bertlesmann and Viacom/MTV Networks. Entertainment is arguable one of the few industries where nearly all publicity is good publicity and where offending people almost guarantees increased sales and profits. The entertainment gets a lot of bad publicity, most of it good for business.
The industry's customary practice in such situations is to invoke the first amendment and remind us of the perils of censorship. But not this time. The book's publisher, Judith Regan, insists that they provides a double public service. On the one hand, a confession that clears up forever the doubt about Mr. Simpson's guilt; and on the other hand, attention to the problem of the abuse of women.
In an extraordinary attempt to justify the publication as a social good, Ms. Regan wrote a 2,200 word essay to the New York Times explaining why "she did it". Today, Nov. 17th, the Times published an article Ms. Regan and the book from which I quote below.
Ms. Regan states that she was the victim of domestic abuse and that she was not surprised that many people did not believe Mr. Simpson could be guilty of murder or abuse.
"I'd seen it before," Ms. Regan wrote, "the men in court, dressed in their designer suits, blaming the women they attacked. I'd seen, firsthand, the 'criminal injustice system,' as I called it in my 20s — the system that let him go one night after assaulting me so he could come right back and do it again."
Ms. Regan also wrote that she believed it was her responsibility as a publisher to bring Mr. Simpson's words to the public, and she likened her role to "the mainstream publishers who keep Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf' in print to this day."
In her phone interview she said: "I think this confession is a historic part of an event that needed closure. We are all in the publishing business, and our business is to tell stories about what is going on. This is a news event."
There is more to Ms. Regan's justification, including her promise to steer the proceeds from the book sales to Mr. Simpson's children, but her protestations have not convinced the families of the victims nor women's rights groups nor, for that matter, CBS and ABC who turned down the opportunity to interview Mr. Simpson.
Then again, they did not have the cross-selling opportunity that News Corp has, a fact that should not be underestimated in this era of asset leveraging.
Nor has Ms. Regan nor News Corp offered to forego any profits that might accrue from the sale of the book. They have simply have claimed that they are "Making Money by Doing Good."
"Making Money by Doing Good" is the theme of the 2007 Academy of Management Annual Conference. I am thinking about presenting this ugly case as an example of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as seen from the point of view of one particular firm. Unhappily, the firm's representatives have some rather sick (yes, that's right, sick) ideas about what constitutes doing well by doing good. I am quite certain that nothing I can say would change Ms. Regan's and News Corp´s mind. That's life. I can accept that. I have no desire to limit in any way their right to be sick, vulgar and offensive.
Our tolerance of such events is what makes capitalism work and, hence, guarantees my freedom. I have no intention of boycotting News Corp or HarperCollins Books, who owns the Regan Books imprint. Our hope is that in a free society those who value reason and dignity outnumber the knaves. Thanks to men and women like Milton Friedman, who died this week at 94, this idea is alive and well.
Defending the rights of scoundrels may seem to some an odd way to pay homage to one of the great minds of the 20th century, but Professor Friedman's hardly needs another eulogy. Better, I better, to defend his defense of freedom. I have not always agreed with Professor Friedman's economics, and I frequently disagreed with his politics, but like many I admired his passionate insistence on freedom.