How the O.J. Simpson Trial Gave Birth to a TV News Mainstay

By Jason Lynch 

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Two decades after it was published, Jeffrey Toobin’s definitive book about the O.J. Simpson trial, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, has been turned into a new, fantastic FX miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

The New Yorker staff writer and CNN senior legal analyst, who serves as a consultant on the miniseries (which debuts tonight at 10 p.m. ET), sat for an Adweek Q&A about the book and show. But he also answered some additional questions for TVNewser about becoming a TV analyst during the trial, the unexpected benefits of having a TV presence and how a CNN guy ended up working for the company that owns Fox News.

TVNewser: Was the O.J. Simpson trial where you honed your TV news presence?
Jeffrey Toobin: Honed? That’s when I started! I was a kid. One of the painful things to do is if you go to YouTube and put in the verdict, and the camera pans from O.J. to the Goldman family, and there I am, seated right behind them. If you’re me, the first thing you always say when you see that video is, “Holy shit, you were young!” I was 31 years old or something. I don’t pretend this is the biggest legacy of the O.J. case, but the television legal analyst, that position began because of O.J. If you look at the people who are still doing it, whether it’s Dan Abrams or Cynthia McFadden or Greta Van Susteren, we are the O.J. generation. And actually, the first person to put me on TV during that period was the executive producer of the Today Show, Jeff Zucker, who is now my boss at CNN.

TVNewser: What did you learn on the fly about appearing on TV?
Toobin: What I have always thought of as my job as a TV legal analyst, is to translate legalese into English. And not to campaign for one side or the other, but just to explain what’s going on in plain English. Often what’s going on is not all that complicated, but it’s garlanded in language that’s unfamiliar to people. That’s what I tried to do during O.J., and that’s what I tried to do 22 years later.

TVNewser: In your book, you wrote that doing those shows put you in close contact with all the people involved in the case.
Toobin: That was huge. Larry King Live, on Sunset Boulevard, was sort of like an O.J. salon every night. And also, one of the things that I very early recognized, is if I was on television talking about the case, people involved in the case were more likely to talk to me and give me interviews. Because I had a higher public profile, no question.

TVNewser: You work for CNN, and The People v. O.J. Simpson is on FX, a Fox company. What has it been like working for the “enemy”?
Toobin: I have dealt with the filmmakers. The corporate structures, the behemoths for which we work, has had no relevance for me. I’m so many levels down from the leadership of either company that it has really has had no impact.

TVNewser: What’s your take on the upcoming shutdown of Al Jazeera America? It’s the loss of another outlet that was doing serious news.
Toobin: I look at that from a very personal point of view. There are a lot of former CNN people that work there, and I feel terrible that they’re out of work. My immediate reaction was just about the people. I’m not in management; I don’t know why it failed. It certainly never seemed to make much of an impact. I don’t know if it wasn’t good, if it wasn’t promoted enough, but I just feel for the human beings who lost their jobs, many of whom I know.