WHEN MEL GIBSON unleashed his by-now infamous anti-Semitic tirade, I warned those in Hollywood eager to shun him to tread cautiously, lest they be labeled hypocrites for dealing with talent that made the actor-director’s drunken slurs look less despicable by comparison.

It didn’t take long — just a dismal sweeps performance by Fox, whose past dalliances with the notorious include cozying up to Michael Jackson for the 2003 special “Michael Jackson Take 2: The Interview They Wouldn’t Show You.”

That was just the appetizer, it turns out, for “O.J. Simpson: If I Did It, Here’s How It Happened,” a two-part interview scheduled for late November in which Simpson — acquitted in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman — speculates on how he might have perpetrated the crime.

Fox’s special is partly synergistic slime, an inhouse promotion for sister News Corp. unit ReganBooks’ planned tome by the same working title. Fox News also jumped on the bandwagon by airing the spec’s promos, appearing to relish a tabloid story that deflects focus from the “thumpin’ ” Republicans took in the midterm elections. “O.J.’s back, folks, and you won’t believe what he’s saying now,” daytime anchor Bill Hemmer almost gushed.

In some respects, the once-affable athlete has become a pathetic figure, transformed into a pariah because millions are convinced his attorneys gamed the system, literally allowing him to get away with murder. Yet Simpson’s grab for attention isn’t nearly as pathetic as that of Fox, whose willingness to endure another manufactured public-relations nightmare reflects the lingering shadows of a best-forgotten fall.

Alas, the Simpson tie-in comes too late to benefit the net’s little-seen primetime fare, but just think of the promotional sizzle he would have lent to “Vanished,” about a missing woman; or “‘Til Death,” a suddenly unfortunately titled sitcom about the vagaries of marriage. Moreover, he practically lived “Justice,” another Fox misfire that views the legal process through high-priced, media-pandering defense lawyers.

For experienced Fox watchers, this follows a familiar if irritating pattern, where the network sets itself up as a PR pinata and hopes the public flogging will draw a crowd — a strategy that has yielded diminishing returns, underscored by the weak ratings the net drew with last year’s “ugh”-inspiring spec “Who’s Your Daddy?” where an adopted woman sought to ID her biological dad.

If nothing else, though, Fox has reminded us how short-term thinking and desperation too often produce twisted priorities, whether that means tethering one’s fortunes to an anti-Semite, an accused child molester or, as Gomez was described in “Addams Family Values,” “A lady killer — acquitted!”

Who’s softer now?

In the nexus between Washington and Hollywood, a popular canard has it that coverage of Hollywood is “soft” compared with reporting inside the Beltway. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, dredged this up recently by telling the New York Times that rules governing showbiz are “not the same norms of media practice as you have in political life. … You don’t have transparency, you don’t have the same adversarial relationship with journalists.”

It’s swell that D.C. types consider themselves so adversarial, and I get that obsessing over Nielsen ratings or box office returns is perceived to transform entertainment journalists into powder puffs, which is true enough for some.

That said, someone please explain the D.C. press corps’ ho-hum response to President Bush’s admission that he misled reporters — and thus the public — about plans to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld prior to the midterm elections because he “didn’t want to inject a major decision about the war” into the campaign.

Translation: It was inconvenient even to sidestep the truth, much less tell it.

Somehow, this statement failed to rate a mention within New York Times and Los Angeles Times front-page stories the next day and merited only passing attention in most TV news accounts. To their credit, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and CNN’s Lou Dobbs did flag that excerpt, while “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart quipped in his best Bush impersonation, “Don’t you get it? I was only lying for my own good.”

Yes, the warming glow of stars is reputed to dazzle the Hollywood press into pitching softballs, but it’s hard to imagine showbiz hacks blithely granting network or studio chiefs a similar free pass regarding such a blatant “Hello, I lied” moment.

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