In looking at how the O.J. Simpson case changed media and changed careers 25 years ago, the stories of those who worked at the enormous media compound outside the Criminal Courts Building in Downtown Los Angeles in 1994 and 1995 – known as “Camp O.J.” – are among the most fascinating.
To share one of them, I reached out to Bob Page, who 25 years ago was a rising star behind-the-scenes in local TV news. A co-worker then at top-rated WSB-TV in Atlanta, Bob was a photojournalist, video editor and high-energy news breaker. Back then, big market local stations sent crews to cover national stories of local interest, almost wherever they happened. Bob was part of the WSB crew that covered the big moments in the Simpson case. Even without local angles per se, the case was big news in Atlanta, like it was just about everywhere.
I asked Bob to describe how he remembers “Camp O.J.”
“Over my career I covered a lot of large-scale events and met a lot of famous or infamous people. ‘Camp O.J.’ was unique. While there were a lot of famous people roaming about the courthouse, the camp was solely for media folks. A few TV stars managed to get through the gate but not a lot… the folks inside that camp were actually covering the trial.”
“Because of the amount of news we dd in Atlanta, the pace at Camp O.J. was not an issue. The time difference made it a bit of a challenge for the Noon show but we loved the morning ‘scrum’ (when defense attorneys would walk by the hordes of media and make comments). We did a lot of live and some days we were off-and-running during the morning court session to shoot a separate story with an expert. I realize there was an intrigue for those not there because of the saturation coverage. However, it was hard work. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun, but we had to produce for the Noon, 5, 6, and 11(newscasts) every day. But hey, it was L.A. and we also enjoyed all that came with being there during the most famous trial since Manson…To me, another entertaining part was the normal folks outside the courthouse. Colorful individuals. Street preachers, gang members, fledgling actors, or just citizens who wanted to see the show for themselves. Met some really good LAPD officers too.”
“That experience certainly prepared me for things in my future. We had the Susan Smith trial coming in the summer that year, and I used the Camp O.J. model to help prepare us for our coverage of that trial. It was not as big, but it was big enough. I also used that experience in my career once I went into news management. I certainly have not covered anything quite like it again, but I sure used that experience and exposure to some true television professionals to make me better.”
One key aspect of the trial for those of us producing inside TV stations around the country was how the defense tried to win in the court of public opinion, by showing up early each day to talk to the huge gathering of media. That still stands out to Bob too.
“The outright use of the media by O.J.’s legal team was genius. They knew that the court of public opinion was their courtroom. We had a standing appointment with Robert Shapiro every morning. He would get out of his car and come right to us. Johnnie Cochran did the same, except with our competitors from Atlanta. It was always good for a tease and cold-open. He knew where we were from and I believe he understood that they needed to influence other large cities to keep the pressure on in L.A. His team felt confident, I believe, that they already had the jury in their favor.”
“The D.A.’s office did not talk to us at all until it was over. I was there when Garcetti and Darden spoke. Chris Darden got very emotional. Regardless of how you saw it, and I will reserve my opinion about the outcome.. that last day you clearly saw the change in journalism. The trial equated tabloid reporters with traditional network correspondents and the way that the public viewed journalists from then on.”
What a point. It’s important to understand that everybody covered the case. National networks, local stations, wire services, newspapers, even ESPN and, of course, tabloid TV and supermarket tabloids, both still in their heyday. The lines blurred for consumers about where they saw the trial and how they separated outlets.
As a local news crew covering a national story, Bob remembers working to provide value for the audience. “We tried to find something relevant every day. We also had one of our well-known, well-respected anchors that people at home trusted to cut through the fluff and tell them what they needed to know about the day’s proceedings.”
Bob agrees, the case changed the media, especially TV, forever. “.. it changed journalism. That trial taught viewers to expect everything instantly and it created the pundit circuit. We have the excess of pundits today due to this trial. It blurred the line that many networks now count on to keep an ever-distracted viewer watching.”
“I am grateful that I was able to be there and that I was present for something so historical. We worked hard to put out the best product for our viewers.”