With Robert Durst, the Media Gets Its 21st-Century O.J.

Opportunistic as always, Investigation Discovery is throwing on a previously aired episode of “Vanity Fair Confidential” on March 22, devoted to the twisted tale of Robert Durst. While it doesn’t shed much light beyond HBO’s “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” the program neatly condenses the story’s highlights to an hour — his trial in Texas is distilled to about three minutes — and adds a few intriguing details to the grisly killing and disposal of Morris Black.

“Durst is not the only crazy person in Galveston,” one of the jurors who acquitted him is shown saying after the trial in 2003.

In terms of media outlets seeking to cash in on the Durst story, consider this just the tip of the iceberg. With a hole to fill in its Thursday lineup, NBC’s “Dateline” has scheduled a special for tonight titled “Robert Durst: Inside the Long, Strange Trip,” with more sure to come. (UPDATE: CBS’ “48 Hours” has joined in. For its part, ID just announced an “instamentary” series, “Front Page,” designed to quickly pounce on “major cases making headlines, within just weeks of the initial incident or arrest,” citing Durst as one example.)

That’s because the combination of the stunning manner in which “The Jinx” ended, Durst’s arrest in connection with a long-dormant Beverly Hills murder and the questions regarding unequal justice for the rich have transformed this case into a 20-years-later version of O.J. Simpson, just without the football highlights.

At the time, Simpson was called the most famous person ever accused of murder. As if to underscore the unique place that trial has occupied in the marriage of criminal justice and media, the Juice still has enough juice that FX has given the go-ahead to a Ryan Murphy-produced series devoted to it.

Durst, by contrast, achieved notoriety by allegedly participated in the killings first, then came about his celebrity through what in hindsight appears to be an almost unparalleled act of hubris in seeking out filmmaker Andrew Jarecki and sitting for lengthy interviews in connection with the HBO series.

Thanks to “The Jinx,” the Durst story is irresistible, but other factors should be noted in the wave of coverage that can be anticipated. For starters, the major networks’ primetime newsmagazines no longer really have any appetite for significant news anymore, operating almost exclusively as inexpensive true-crime dramas that churn out salacious murders and lurid “Did he or didn’t he kill his wife?” mysteries.

Moreover, the media have changed and proliferated considerably during the intervening years. Fox News and MSNBC were just joining the cable-news race in the mid-1990s, and MSNBC — in the midst of an identity crisis thanks to sluggish ratings — is currently casting about for a new direction, which might explain why there was a particularly heavy dose of Durst on the channel this week.

TMZ, one of the most influential forces in celebrity news, didn’t even exist until 2005. And numerous print outlets have shifted to Web-oriented models, making them far more conscious of traffic concerns than they were when Simpson went on trial.

Other shoes likely to drop in Durst mania seem like foregone conclusions, including a follow-up movie (after playing Phil Spector and Jack Kevorkian, Al Pacino should stay close to the phone) and additional documentaries. And the prospect of another high-profile L.A.-based murder trial obviously lingers.

It’s notable, too, that the Simpson and Durst cases each became entrenched in the public consciousness via jaw-dropping televised moments — the slow-speed White Bronco chase and Durst’s open-mic monologue that, whether or not it’s used in a courtroom, certainly sounded like an admission of guilt.

The main difference, frankly, is that while Simpson’s Bronco helped lead the media further down a tabloid path, Durst arrives at a moment where an expanded horde of news outlets are already dug in, hungry and waiting to great him with open arms.

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