There is one reason that Robert Blake’s murder trial will not become another O.J. Simpson affair, and that reason is as clear as the hand in front of your face.

Or should I say the skin on the hand in front of your face?

Race. O.J. was about race. Yes, it was also about fame, beauty, wealth and, of course, murder. But at its angry core, it was a racial trial. You had a good-looking black man once married to a beautiful white woman — which still rankles many people in America. You had a racist cop who used the n-word, which rankles — and should rankle — many people in America.

And you had Johnnie Cochran and his spin machine making sure skin was the center of the case, which also rankles many people in America.

Blake’s case doesn’t have that. He is white. His murdered wife, Bonny Bakley, was white. And I don’t think he’s hiring Johnnie Cochran.

So when the public takes sides in this case — and it always does in celebrity murder trials — it won’t be doing so because Blake or Bakley is “one of ours.”

That doesn’t mean it won’t get crazy.

Little opening drama

At quick glance, the Blake and Simpson cases have a disturbing amount in common. Both wives seemed to revel in the high life. Both had vexed their husbands. Blake and Simpson initially denied any wrongdoing. Both had alibis that were more than a little shaky.

But remember that the Simpson case opened with a news-altering event — the low-speed white Bronco chase. This prolonged drama, on a Friday evening, slowly sucked America toward the TVs, mostly to see if Simpson would shoot himself.

By the time he was arrested, in front of his home, the general public was hooked.

Blake had no such opening chapter. His wife’s death was nearly a year ago. Most people have forgotten about it. When informed he was about to be arrested, Blake cooperated and did not run. He was taken in wearing a T-shirt and a hat.

Still, I worry. For as explosive as the O.J. trial was, the media back then still were inventing ways to cover it.

Now, news programs, particularly 24-hour cable news, are Phi Beta Kappa when it comes to prolonged celebrity scandal. They have helicopters on call, cameras everywhere.

Moments after Blake’s arrest Thursday evening, his lawyer, Harland Braun, was live on the phone with CNN’s Larry King. Braun was actually in his car, driving to the police headquarters.

At one point, King actually interrupted Braun to go to a reporter on the scene. “Someone, apparently Mr. Blake, handcuffed, has been put into that sheriff’s car,” King said.

Wow. You get the arrest, live on TV, at the same time you get the lawyer calling from his car and — later in the show — the victim’s lawyers and family. All in one program!

Pretty soon, they’ll have the judge and jury lined up, they’ll give Larry their decision, and we can wrap the whole thing before David Letterman.

Time for a film clip

That is what I worry about. Not the racial question. The overkill question. Cable news has become such a dominant force in this country — thanks first to O.J. and then to Sept. 11 — that you almost can’t escape it.

So in the weeks to come, the news channels will focus on every tawdry event in Blake’s and Bakley’s lives — and there seems to have been plenty. And, of course, they’ll have something O.J. never provided — clips from movies in which Blake plays a killer. We’ll be shown those constantly.

I would like to think we, the public, are smarter now. But I can’t. Even after Sept. 11, we still watch “Fear Factor.” We still flock to “Celebrity Boxing.”

And we’ll go for this. “Baretta on Trial!” The only reason it won’t reach O.J. status is because it’s not about race. And sick as it seems, there are TV execs out there who wish it were.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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