Ken Garcia: Moral high ground sorely lacking in Simpson fiasco

As the recent O.J. Simpson/News Corp. pseudo-reality project proved this week, when it comes to the rush for ratings and money, tastelessness knows no bounds.

But the only real surprise in the lurid tale isn’t that television and publishing executives at News Corp. green-lighted the project. It was that they seemed taken aback when the Furies of hell were unleashed after it was announced that an acquitted, but suspected, killer of two young people was about to tell millions of people how he would have murdered them, that is, if he had really done it.

Brilliant.

Now you know the world has spun off its axis when News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch is portrayed as an arbiter of taste and values. The man who brings us Fox News, that televised testament to fair and balanced coverage, canceled the book and TV special this week, calling it an “ill-conceived project.”

Too bad such caring thoughts about the victims’ families

didn’t enter the executive suite three months ago when the Simpson book “I Did It,” was first shopped to an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, another subsidiary of Murdoch’s vast media group.

Perhaps the saddest part is that it took all the threats of a boycott from advertisers, network affiliates and bookstore chains — the money-producing part of the project — to get it squashed, since it’s clear that Fox figured it had a sweeps-week winner on its hands.

And as much as I hate to admit it, they were probably right. After all,any country that could make celebrities out of Geraldo Rivera, Jerry Springer and Paris Hilton could probably find merit in watching a notorious man muse about slashing two people to death.

Simpson said he did it for financial gain — he called it “blood money” — and that may be the only truth to come out of this misguided mess. He said he deserves the criticism he deserves, but that’s a lot easier to say after you’ve been paid up to $3.5 million for selling your soul.

Simpson said he never spoke to book publisher Judith Regan until he taped the TV interview. “In the course of the interview I said, ‘This is blood money and I hope nobody reads it.’” Yet at the same time he told the Associated Press that he did the project because he thought the book would have been a best-seller and “my kids would have been coming into a lot of money.”

So he doesn’t want people to read it but he thought it would be huge publishing success. And that must make sense only if you’re one of the greatest open-field runners in football history — able to reverse fields at top speed while looking smooth in the process.

I have always hoped we’d seen the last of O.J. Simpson, a man that San Francisco once held up proudly as its own, watching him rise to great heights and popularity through his athletic skills. But after Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were brutally slain in 1994 — and all eyes focused on one man — that changed dramatically.

But in a way, this tragic farce could not have involved anyone else, because those who remember the murder trial will recognize that it was the precursor to modern-day reality TV, an unfolding drama that became must-watch television. It made celebrities out of characters minor and major, from Kato Kaelin to Johnny Cochrane, and exposed a racial divide rarely seen on film. And it came to a shocking conclusion, one that still eats away at the families of the victims — something that Simpson and the cast at News Corp. so blithely ignored.

Could the new “spin” on some old murders have brought boffo box-office? Absolutely — in much the same way that a car wreck brings out curious onlookers.

One thing I learned long ago in journalism school was that death, or any life taken even in the most seemingly dumb circumstances, is not to be treated in a lighthearted way. How people die may be morbidly fascinating (see car wreck above), but it is not entertainment. That’s been the standard for news gatherers for as long as they’ve existed, and even with the rise and popularity of horrible reality shows, that standard has not changed.

But the real fear factor is that the Simpson fiasco shows how far media executives will go to grab headlines, ratings and monetary returns in the face of the most basic human value — respect for life itself.

That may not mean a lot to the players involved in this latest sorry circus, but that is expected when the high moral ground barely reaches the top of the curb.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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