Race & The Media: The 1994 OJ Simpson Murder Case Trial: TIME Magazine Darkened His Mugshot Picture For Their Cover
HOW FAR SHOULD a magazine go in documenting the news? This question was raised in 1994 during the OJ Simpson murder case trial, when TIME deliberately darkened his mugshot on their cover. By Ben Arogundade. Sept. 20, 2019.
OJ SIMPSON'S TRIAL BY PHOTOSHOP: During his 1994 murder trial, Hollywood actor and former sports celebrity OJ Simpson appeared on the covers of the June 27, 1994 editions of both 'TIME’ and 'Newsweek' magazine simultaneously. Controversy exploded across the news media after 'Time' deliberately darkened Simpson's mugshot to make him appear more sinister.
IT WAS BILLED AS THE TRIAL of the century — a true-life drama which produced 133 days of testimony, 126 witnesses and 857 exhibits entered as evidence. Watched by a global audience in excess of half a billion people, the trial of actor and ex-sports celebrity OJ Simpson for the murder of his wife Nicole, was estimated to have cost the American gross national product $40 million in lost productivity.
MAKING THE OJ SIMPSON NEWS
In the midst of the murder trial, on June 27, 1994, TIME and Newsweek magazines published the same cover image — a mugshot of Simpson obtained from the Los Angeles Police Department's records. But there was one glaring difference between the two cover portraits. While Newsweek used the unaltered mugshot photo of Simpson TIME digitally altered the image for their cover — darkening OJ Simpson’s face in what some commentators claimed was a deliberate attempt by the magazine to demonise him. The photo manipulation of OJ's mugshot rendered his blackness both unequivocal and menacing, in a murder case already infused with race — with Simpson, the black defendant, accused of murdering his blonde white wife.
TIME & NEWSWEEK MAGAZINE COVER CONTRAST
The association of dark skin with innate evil has a long history, dating back to the early Christian Fathers of the third century. At the same time, within contemporary culture, dark skin is viewed as less attractive, particularly within the black and South Asian communities, where large quantities of skin-lightening creams are sold every year.
TIME magazine's controversial cover would probably have gone unnoticed if Newsweek’s version had not appeared simultaneously, allowing readers to instantly compare the two mugshots of OJ. When the magazine cover was being put together, the bosses at TIME gave the mugshot photograph to graphic artist Matt Mahurin to “interpret”. “I wanted to make it more artful, more compelling” he suggested, seemingly unaware of the racial dimension of what he was creating.
The use of Photoshop to manipulate portraits of celebrities has been questioned ever since the technology was first invented in 1990. Fashion magazines in particular have been criticised for using it to create false ideals of beauty, while in 2007 a nationwide debate took place in the American media after a heavily Photoshopped image of country singer Faith Hill was published alongside the original, un-retouched photograph.
OJ's DARK MUGSHOT DRAWS HEAT
In TIME’s case, the magazine fielded a barrage of criticism from all quarters about its manipulation of OJ Simpson's mugshot for their cover. Their journalistic ethics were called into question — instead of unbiased reporting of the news, they were guilty of creating their own inauthentic version of it. TIME’s managing editor during the period, James R. Gaines, stated that he regretted doctoring the cover photo, and that “no racial implication was intended, by TIME or by the artist.”
In a rare about face, the backlash led to the company pulling the edition from the newsstands and replacing it with a revised cover. TIME’s newsstand sales are small compared to its subscriber base, and so the original cover, with its darkened OJ mugshot, stayed in circulation throughout homes and offices — inadvertently becoming a collector's piece. Simpson was acquitted of the charge of murdering his wife, but was later jailed for nine years for armed robbery. He was released in 2017.