Like nearly everything about the O.J. Simpson murder case, NBC’s exclusive interview today with the former football star is whipping up heat - even before the first question is asked.
Thousands of viewers have called NBC and its stations to protest. A women’s organization has denounced the network. And “Today” show anchor Bryant Gumbel is unhappy he will not be part of the interview.
The hourlong Simpson interview, conducted by Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, will be live and without commercial interruption. It will be part of a three-hour special edition of “Dateline NBC.”
Simpson, 48, a former football commentator for NBC, was acquitted last week in the June 12, 1994, killings of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Simpson did not testify during the trial, and he has not given any extensive interviews since then.
Neither NBC nor Simpson will profit from the event, said NBC News President Andrew Lack. The interview, he said, is a legitimate story that any journalist would pursue.
“We’re not in a popularity contest here,” Lack said. “We’re journalists. We’re reporters. There are a lot of people who are going to be offended by anything O.J. Simpson says, and any appearance he makes, anywhere.”
That’s for sure. Reaction to the NBC interview, announced Monday night, was swift:
NBC network headquarters in New York was deluged by protest calls on Tuesday, and affiliates around the country reported unusually high numbers of unhappy callers. Detroit’s WDIV-TV, Channel 4, received more than 300 calls by midafternoon, including several dozen from viewers who said they’d never watch the station again.
Pat Rapp, a Southfield, Mich., woman who has followed the Simpson case, said: “He’s a killer. He’s a wife beater. And he did it in front of his children, which makes him a child abuser.”
Some callers said that if he wanted to speak, Simpson should have done so in court when he was under oath and could be cross-examined.
Security will be tight at the network studios in Los Angeles, where the interview will be held.
Women’s groups said Simpson, who pleaded no contest to spousal battery in 1989, should not be given a national platform to seek to repair his image.
“NBC … will essentially be handing over the network to an admitted batterer and a man whose DNA was found at the scene of two of the most brutal murders my generation has seen,” said Tammy Bruce, head of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women.
NOW warned of unspecified economic consequences for NBC.
Inside NBC, Gumbel argued that he should participate in the interview because he covered the story extensively for “Today.” But Lack, who originally chose Gumbel to ask questions along with Brokaw and Couric, changed his mind after Simpson, during a 20-minute telephone conversation, described Gumbel as a friend.
“It became clear to me,” Lack said, “that there was a conflict of interest there and, if not a conflict, the perception of a conflict. O.J. and Bryant have known each other for 20 years. They have played golf together. Bryant knew Nicole. The journalistic rules of the road require that you recuse yourself because of that special relationship.”
“I made the decision to remove him from the team,” Lack said. “He does not quarrel with the decision. But he is pained by it. I can’t underscore that enough.”
According to Lack, Gumbel said that his professionalism would enable him to be fair. He did not appear on “Today” on Tuesday, citing an illness.
As it happened, another Simpson friend, Don Ohlmeyer, who runs NBC’s entertainment division, brought the interview to NBC. Ohlmeyer advised Simpson not to do a pay-per-view interview but to appear on an NBC News program where no money would change hands.
“We’re going to lose money on the night,” Lack said. An NBC sales executive told The Associated Press that NBC stood to lose $1.4 million by giving up ads for an hour.
The commercials during the rest of the broadcast will not be sold at premium prices, NBC said, although a massive audience is expected.
Pressure will be intense, not just on Simpson, but on Brokaw and Couric to do a tough but fair interview.
Lack said they would ask all the important questions but would be limited by the live format and one-hour time limit, both set by Simpson. Simpson’s lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, will be watching the interview from the control room, in part because Simpson faces civil lawsuits from the Brown and Goldman families stemming from the murders.
“We are going to ask him the questions that are on everyone’s mind, and they are tough questions,” Lack said. “There are questions about the evidence, about domestic abuse, about the time line of the case.”
But, playing down expectations, Lack also said: “This is not a courtroom. This is a television studio. We are not prosecutors. We are journalists. We are not interrogators in the courtroom sense.”