×

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.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Shane Gillis SNL Controversy

    Shane Gillis Makes First Stand-Up Appearance Since 'SNL' Firing

    Comedian Shane Gillis made his first public appearance Wednesday night since he was hired by “Saturday Night Live,” then fired from the show days later amid controversy over his use of racist slurs. Appearing on stage at comedy club the Stand in New York City, Gillis performed an 11-minute set that pulled no punches when [...]

  • AMERICAN HORROR STORY: 1984 -- Pictured:

    'American Horror Story' Recap: Welcome to 'Camp Redwood'

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the season premiere of “American Horror Story: 1984” entitled “Camp Redwood.” Welcome back to “American Horror Story,” which in its ninth season travels back in time to the 1970s and 1980s to play in the slasher genre. Only one episode into the season, it already [...]

  • Connie Britton BlogHer Summit

    Connie Britton on ‘Friday Night Lights’ Remake: ‘You Need to Let it Go’

    Connie Britton opened up at a fireside chat Wednesday at the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit in Brooklyn by talking about one of her most beloved roles — Tami Taylor in the fan favorite series “Friday Night Lights.” When asked if a remake of the sports cult film and Emmy-winning TV show is in the works she [...]

  • Bob IgerSimon Weisenthal Gala honoring Bob

    Bob Iger Would Have Combined Disney With Apple if Steve Jobs Were Still Alive

    Disney and Apple are both launching their own streaming services come November, but Disney CEO Bob Iger says the two companies weren’t always on competing paths. In an excerpt from his autobiography published Wednesday in “Vanity Fair,” Iger revealed that Disney and Apple likely would have merged if Steve Jobs hadn’t died in 2011. “I [...]

  • The Mentalist

    #NotWorthLess: 'I Was Great and Deserve to Be Paid the Same'

    Women writers, producers and assistants across Twitter turned the hashtag #NotWorthLess into a trend Wednesday, shining a light on issues of pay inequality in the entertainment business. Sparked by screenwriter Adele Lim’s recent decision to walk away from the “Crazy Rich Asians” sequel in protest of being paid less than her male co-writer, dozens of [...]

  • does self-described "family brands" business Hasbro

    With Hasbro Acquisition, Is eOne Planning to Offload Family-Unfriendly Properties?

    Hasbro’s $4 billion acquisition of eOne in August instantly put the Canadian toy giant in the league of major entertainment and content companies thanks to eOne’s arsenal of IP assets in music, television and film. But does the self-described “family brands” business that’s home to The Game of Life and My Little Pony align with [...]

  • Mariah Carey Tracee Ellis Ross

    Mariah Carey, Tracee Ellis Ross Celebrate Biracial Heritage at “Mixed-ish” Premiere

    Mariah Carey and Tracee Ellis Ross embraced their “ish” at Tuesday night’s series premiere event for ABC’s “Mixed-ish” by reflecting on how their biracial identity makes working on the new show even more personal. “I’m just so thankful that this show exists,” Carey told the assembled crowd during a Q&A with series creator Kenya Barris. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content