The night of O.J. Simpson’s arrest in 1994, I was six years old and had gone to my friend Mallory’s house for a sleepover. Her parents had the TV on, probably watching the NBA finals, when the program was interrupted with breaking news and switched to live footage of a white Ford Bronco driving down a Los Angeles freeway. I had no idea who O.J. Simpson was, or why his alleged crime shocked the world. But his arrest, trial and eventual acquittal defined my childhood and the childhood of all elder millennials.

For the next year, every adult conversation I overheard was about O.J. Simpson. Every news hour featured anchors delivering information about the trial. Every late-night talk show host I overheard from the TV in my parents’ room mentioned O.J. in the monologue. As a first grader, I knew the names Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark and Judge Lance Ito. There was something about a glove that didn’t fit, and some disturbing controversy over a detective.

I was spared the horrific details of the murders of which SImpson was accused, but I knew the broad strokes of the allegations. Kids on the elementary school playground debated Simpson’s guilt or innocence, parroting whatever they had heard the adults in their life say at home. O.J.’s face even showed up on POG slammers, the hot toy trend at the time.

On Oct. 3, 1995, my second-grade teacher turned on the television and the class of 7-year-olds watched the jury deliver its verdict and heard the court clerk say “not guilty.” I remember feeling a vague sense of loss. Not because I had any clue about whether justice had been served, but because the spectacle was suddenly over. I wondered what everyone was supposed to talk about now. What was going to keep us entertained?

The answer, it turned out, was Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

In 1998, the affair between the president and an intern became the new topic of late night talk shows, evening news and playground chatter. Kids quoted Clinton’s infamous grand jury denial before we even knew what the words meant or why they mattered.

In 1999, during my seventh-grade history class, we watched the Senate vote to acquit Clinton on both articles of impeachment.

Then, two years later, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I woke up to the sounds of my parents gasping as they watched “The Today Show,” which had just shown footage of an airplane flying into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later, a second plane flew into the South Tower.

Almost everyone was late to class in my high school that day. And in every class our teachers turned on the news, and we watched in horror together as talking heads struggled to make sense of the tragedy unfolding.

O.J. Simpson’s death is not cause for celebration

For weeks, we watched the news together, at home and sometimes in school while we collectively grieved. It was, I believe, my generation’s last monoculture news event, before the arrival of smartphones and streaming.

Last night, my husband and I were explaining the O.J. Simpson arrest and trial to our oldest daughter, who is 12. We tried to explain to her how big a part of our childhoods the spectacle was. I wondered what news events will punctuate her youth. So I asked her if she remembers seeing any big news events as they happened. When she looked puzzled, I realized we never watch the news so she would never have had the chance to have seen a breaking alert. We don’t have cable or even an antenna to get basic network channels. We pay for YouTube TV for special events like sports finals and awards shows, but all other programs are streamed, usually watched days after they air. She’s never once watched breaking news in a classroom.

If there’s a news event now, we’re learning about it from social media, not from the television.

Which in some ways might be healthier. I don’t think that 6-year-olds need to know about, or even worse, be entertained by a murder trial. And I don’t believe that they need to keep up with public figures’ improprieties.

But I do wonder how — or if — a people can collectively come together to navigate through news events when information about those events is coming from so many different places and colored with so many different opinions.

There’s also a paradoxical potential to miss key events entirely. While platforms like Twitter and Facebook bring immediate updates, these updates can also get lost amid the trivia, memes and misinformation.

We consume reality through screens tailored to our preferences, rarely sharing a communal moment (but for the Super Bowl) in front of the television. It’s a shift I believe will have profound implications for how the next generation — my daughter’s generation — will connect with events beyond their immediate purview, how they will perceive truth and how they might engage as informed citizens in a complex world.

I wonder how her generation will mark the world history of their childhood. For me, it began with O.J. Simpson’s arrest. His passing punctuates the end of a media era that probably needed to go. But I’m not sure we’ve replaced it with anything better.

Al Cowlings, with O.J. Simpson hiding, drives a white Ford Bronco as they lead police on a two-county chase along the northbound 405 Freeway towards Simpson's home, June 17, 1994, in Los Angeles. Simpson died on April 10, 2024. | Lois Bernstein