The Fox network let down a lot of people who, having worked themselves into a lather over the O.J. Simpson interview, were about to get even angrier once Fox put it on the air.
Then Fox owner News Corp. yielded to the growing uproar and yanked the two-part TV special, "If I Did It, Here's How It Happened," which had been set for broadcast this week. News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch also spiked the accompanying book that likewise promised to describe how Simpson might have committed the two murders for which he was acquitted a decade ago.
With this abrupt cancellation, all the condemnation aimed at project mastermind Judith Regan, Murdoch, Fox and Simpson himself was stranded, prematurely, with no place to go.
But it quickly found a convenient new outlet. On the very same day, actor-comedian Michael Richards was swamped in his own scandal after being captured on video hurling racist epithets at a comedy club audience.
He was the ideal diversionary target. Thus did Kramer take heat for O.J. and Fox.
Granted, to relate Richards in most any way to Simpson might seem preposterous. And to lump Richards' bigoted rant with a double homicide is idiotic.
But until just days ago, Richards was loved as eccentric neighbor Cosmo Kramer on those funny "Seinfeld" reruns. Now Richards, scarcely heard from since the show wrapped in 1998, finds himself reappraised as a has-been and, worse, a party to the brand of racial divisiveness that Simpson widely represents.
Late-night connection drawn
This Simpson-Richards connection was drawn on the Monday, Nov. 20 "Late Show with David Letterman." Dave had news of the canceled Simpson interview in his monologue, which segued seamlessly into a joke about Richards' racist rant.
Soon Richards made his painful satellite appearance. The rambling explanation he gave seemed to boil down to a fit of rage (that his stand-up act had been disrupted by members of the audience) given even freer rein in a desperate bid to shock his audience for comic effect (perhaps to demonstrate "If I Was a Racist, Here's What I Would Say").
More than a week later, Kramer is still running the gantlet of apologies. He's trying to convince the public, and the black community in particular, that he is no racist — just someone who made a terrible mistake, is now deeply sorry, and (as he told "Late Show" viewers) needs "to do personal work."
Nonetheless, the three-time Emmy winner may forever be known for those outbursts caught on a club-goer's cell phone. No laughing matter at the Laugh Factory, it left Richards, with his full participation, as the latest case of collateral damage in YouTube Nation.
But what of Fox's sordid enterprise?
Pulling the plug on "If I Did It" cost the network a few million dollars. But that's chump change for nipping this scandal in the bud, with no further backlash from what Fox pre-sold as a confession by Simpson that indeed he butchered two people — ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman — then beat the rap.
To their credit, ABC and NBC reportedly had nixed the Simpson interview — not that anyone at those networks is likely to have taken a moral stand when saying no. More probable: O.J. Simpson just didn't jibe with the image cultivated by their respective parent companies, Walt Disney Co. and General Electric Co. (MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft)
'Fox will be Fox'
Fox, by contrast, doesn't even have an image it needs to preserve. "Fox will be Fox" sums up the network's shameless doctrine, which routinely is pushed to the limit (and sometimes beyond) by longtime head of alternative programming Mike Darnell.
Darnell is the man behind such fare as "World's Scariest Police Shootouts," "Joe Millionaire," "Temptation Island" and, of course, the notorious "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" — the 2000 "reality" special whose pairing of Rick Rockwell with Darva Conger was a con job in ways that even caught Fox by surprise.
"This is an interview that no one thought would ever happen," Darnell said in announcing "If I Did It" a few weeks ago. And, thanks to Fox's subsequent damage control, it's as if the interview never did happen. But should Fox be let off the hook for ditching a show that should never have been made in the first place?
Is there a double standard here? Richards, however shamed and contrite, may never be excused for his offense. Yet Fox, despite having overplayed its hand, can write off its own race-baiting miscalculation as the cost of doing business, then carry on with its devil-may-care games.
There is no repentance, no reform in the Fox game plan. And none demanded by the public. So what can viewers look for next time? Certainly not "If Fox Did It: Here's How This Network Could Be Socially Responsible." For Fox, pretty much anything still goes.