Wednesday, June 18, 2014

OJ Chase Day

OJ Simpson's police chase captivated millions of viewers around the world twenty years ago today.  I know because I was watching the live coverage from Beijing, China.

At the time, I was vice president and assistant to the president for CBS News, the division's number two executive.  I was overseeing its news coverage and prime time news programs.  60 Minutes had aired a story called the "Dying Rooms" about China's one child policy imposed under the country's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, to control population.

A man and his wife were only allowed to have one child, and since boys would be obligated to take care of their aging parents,  girls were often abandoned.  Orphanages became overcrowded with baby girls.  When a girl became sick, the child would be put in a closet or room and left to die.  This was an outrageous consequence of a terrible policy.  The BBC did the original report, including hidden camera video, and 60 Minutes aired its own version.

The Chinese government protested and threatened to shut the CBS News bureau.  I went to Beijing to meet with members of the information ministry to discuss their complaints.  On the morning of the scheduled meeting I went to the hotel gym and got on the treadmill next to my friend, CNN's executive vice president Ed Turner, who was there for meetings with his bureau.

As we jogged in place, we watched CNN live on a television monitor (it was still yesterday in America).  But CNN was locked on a police chase up California's Interstate 405.  Former football superstar and hollywood actor OJ Simpson was leading cops on a police chase while holding a gun to his head.  The police wanted to question him in the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.  For the next half-hour Turner and I both ran in place, helplessly out of position 7,000 miles away.  As the chase continued, we each became more anxious.

I left the gym and checked in with CBS News headquarters and found out we were on the air.  I then called home, where my wife, Susan Zirinsky, was hosting a year-end party for her show's staff, she was an executive producer.  Susan took the call in our bedroom, where a two dozen employees had gathered to watch the news coverage.  In fact, staff were massed around televisions throughout our house.  Susan had called headquarters to volunteer her help, but they put her on standby and told her they would call when they needed assistance.

The end of the OJ story is well known to a whole generation around the world.  It made television history because it was the first time a police car chase had gone global.  Meanwhile, I talked the Chinese government into keeping our Beijing bureau open.  Sadly, Ed Turner, one of the architects of CNN's 24-hour news, died in 2002.  

I remember where I was when President John F. Kennedy was shot.  I remember where I was when I watched man first walk on the moon.  And I absolutely will always remember where I was when I watched OJ Simpson lead police on a wild chase up the 405--a Beijing hotel gymnasium.

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