Jackson’s molestation case: the blob that ate media credibility

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Michael Jackson’s molestation case: the blob that ate media credibility By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV/Media Critic Published January 11, 2004 For a fan of great TV journalism, it was like learning the New York Yankees had used corked bats to win their last World Series title. CBS’ venerated 60 Minutes, TV’s last bastion of old-school investigative journalism, paid Michael Jackson to earn his cooperation in an exclusive news interview. Of course, CBS executives vigorously deny any such thing happened regarding correspondent Ed Bradley’s Dec. 28 interview with the self-styled King of Pop. They call a New York Times story alleging Jackson was paid an additional $1-million for the interview, and for the rescheduled airing of a prime time special Jan. 2, “categorically false.” But they have admitted insisting that Jackson deny child molestation charges on 60 Minutes before they would broadcast the slavishly complimentary program – shelved back in November after the singer’s arrest. Given that Jackson has a new album in stores and could use a little good PR right now, isn’t that the same as paying him off? And doesn’t that damage CBS News’ credibility just as badly? “This is an interview that Ed Bradley had been pursuing for a year,” said spokeswoman Sandy Genelius, sidestepping the deal’s implications. “It was an interview we did not pay money for,” Genelius added. “It came to us, and Ed did the interview.” How bad are things when a network’s denial of wrongdoing includes the admission they traded something for a news interview, just not cash? As CBS executives dance on the hot griddle of media criticism yet again – their pain likely eased by ratings indicating the Jackson interview was TV’s most-watched show that week – the controversy highlights the power of the Jackson story to corrupt so many who touch it. Already, CBS News faces accusations of checkbook journalism, the New York Times faces accusations of inaccurate reporting and irresponsible use of anonymous sources (mostly from CBS News), and other media outlets – especially cable TV news – stand accused of spending way too much time talking about the case in the first place. And as the media furor continues with Jackson’s scheduled arraignment Friday, a nagging question emerges: Is the Jackson story the ultimate example of a story so sordid it taints everything around it? Does absolute media attention corrupt absolutely? “Absolutely. . . . When there is such intense, saturated coverage, all there is left is to give your skew on it,” said Diane Dimond of Court TV, who gained a national reputation for her reporting on molestation charges against Jackson in 1993 while working for the tabloid news show Hard Copy. “Many of the journalistic rules about how to cover a story don’t apply when you’re talking about Michael Jackson,” said Dimond, whose own scoops – she was the first to report on law enforcement’s raid on Jackson’s Neverland Ranch compound Nov. 18 – earned her a move to an anchor slot on Court TV’s Thursday show, Hollywood at Large. “I’m steeped in Journalism 101 when it comes to covering stories, but much of that flies out the window here,” she added. “We have to be careful not to go on wild tangents and keep our eye on the fact that (the allegation is) a sick boy has been molested.” Dimond – who acknowledges Jackson’s representatives have stopped returning her phone calls, complaining that she’s grown too close to prosecutors – cites a laundry list of potential pitfalls in covering the story, all exacerbated by its high profile. For example: a scarcity of sources willing to talk on the record, fearing Jackson’s fans and representatives will upend their lives; a flood of people offering information whose credibility and connection to the principals may be suspect; ill-informed pundits taking sides on the issue to further their own fame or agendas; pressure from inside news organizations and the public to come up with juicy scoops, regardless of how they are obtained. At least one person repeatedly interviewed as a “Jackson family friend,” former journalist Stacy Brown, has been hired as a paid analyst for NBC News. Such sources’ ties to Jackson and his advisers are rarely explained fully in stories. Better-known “analysts” hired by TV outlets include Dimond herself, filing reports for NBC’s Today show, and former O. J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden, working for CNN. Prosecutors in Santa Barbara have tried to curb the madnesss by requesting a gag order that would bar Jackson, his attorney Mark Geragos and many others connected to the case from talking with the media. Meanwhile, news organizations have asked the court to unseal search warrants and other legal documents relating to the search of Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, which are currently under seal until Friday’s arraignment. It’s a sprawling, media-fed mess, in which consumers are stuck trying to glean useful information from a flood of accounts straining for the high ratings and acclaim that can come from owning a story the world is talking about. “Everything Michael Jackson seems to touch turns into embarrassment, humiliation and tragedy,” said Orville Schell, dean of the graduate journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley. “He is a tar baby of monumental proportions, into which all too many reputable news outlets are being stuck. Never mind whether there was payola or a quid pro quo with 60 Minutes. . . . When so many stories are going wanting because of limited resources, it seems a shame to have the premiere news investigative TV show pulled off to do this sort of thing.” Schell doesn’t criticize the specifics of Jackson coverage as much as the story itself: a molestation allegation grown to global proportions due to the fame of the accused. “It’s very hard to cover a story of unredeeming social and political consequence well without becoming besmirched by it,” he said. “It’s like having junk food become the main part of your diet. I’ve often felt newspapers and TV newscasts should have a dumping ground for these kinds of stories (such as a special segment at a newscast’s end), because it’s like nuclear waste . . . it contaminates everything else.” Joseph Angotti, a former senior vice president at NBC News who serves as chair of the broadcast program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, noted that news organizations often find ways around their own ethics guidelines when trying to attract sought-after sources. “For instance, the Today show won’t pay someone for an interview, but they’ll fly them into New York, put them up at a nice hotel and take them to dinner and a show,” said Angotti, a former executive producer of NBC Nightly News. “(News staffers) are very careful their hands don’t get dirty dealing in this kind of stuff,” he said. “But there are so many ways to circumvent those policies . . . and it happens all the time.” (Today show publicist Lauren Knapp responded: “It’s standard practice in the industry that when you ask guests to disrupt their lives and appear live in New York, its only fair to provide them with a place to sleep and a meal to eat. This is in no way comparable to an organization paying for an interview – which is completely against NBC News policy.”) Every principal involved in the Jackson case seems to have an Achilles heel: from past sexual assault allegations made by the parents of the victim, to criticisms of Santa Barbara district attorney Tom Sneddon’s levity in dealing with the media, to Jackson’s allegations police “manhandled” him during his arrest. Such situations aren’t uncommon in cases this well-known, said NBC News’ chief legal correspondent Dan Abrams, who has covered the Jackson case on his own MSNBC program. “Maybe with the exception of the Michael Skakel case, I can’t think of a recent celebrity case where the person is charged with a serious crime, where it hasn’t gotten pretty ugly,” said Abrams. “Is this the kind of story where you get your hands dirty? Sure,” he added. “You have to assume people will find out the (reporting) tactics you are using. And you have say to yourself, with that in mind, what can I do to get this story?” As of press time, court officials in Santa Barbara had not decided whether Jackson’s Friday arraignment would be televised. But Abrams doubted much beyond early legal proceedings, if anything, would land on television, citing two reasons: lingering memories of how nonstop TV coverage affected the Simpson trial, and efforts to avoid publishing the name and image of the state’s chief witness, who is a minor. “During a trial, when you’re talking about a child as a primary witness, the name is going to be repeatedly mentioned,” said the anchor. “I think, as a logistical matter, it would be very difficult to have a camera present.” Abrams, who covered the Simpson trial for NBC, also doesn’t expect O.J.-size impact from a Jackson trial. “The Simpson case was a perfect storm: every element working together at once,” he said. “People don’t feel they know Michael Jackson or care about Michael Jackson enough. And I don’t think they’re going to get to know the accuser, so they won’t care as much about the outcome.” But other media experts say the social issues reflected in the Jackson story – the corrosive effect of celebrity, society’s eagerness to see the mighty disgraced, the near-operatic quality of the star’s fall from grace – will ensure the public remains cloesly engaged. “The Michael Jackson story is the epitome of scandal journalism in its Zen-like form,” said Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “The commodity Michael Jackson used to deliver to us was these groundbreaking videos. Now we are anxiously anticipating the next Michael Jackson scandal like we used to anticipate the next Michael Jackson album. There is a huge national mythos being worked out that totally transcends the news story.” All this hand-wringing over journalism ethics may seem obtuse to those outside the Fourth Estate. Even some who act as journalists don’t always understand their responsibilities (Nancy O’Dell, eye-candy anchor for the celebrity gossip show Access Hollywood, recently giggled on a TV talk show about dating a star two days before she wound up interviewing him – conveniently forgetting to ask questions about his love life, of course). “Do people really give a s– about this?” asked Northwestern University’s Angotti with a weary laugh. “The competition is just so great, that there’s nothing going on out there that is wholesome and good in most journalism that involves controversy and celebrity. And I think people have accepted that.” Worst of all, the distortion from all these other issues may keep history from answering the most important question: Did Jackson really do it? “If he’s found innocent, we’ll wonder if celebrity got him off. . . . If he’s found guilty, we’ll wonder if the media got to the jury and his weird appearance influenced people,” said CourtTV’s Dimond. “Anything involving Jackson is so bizarre, there’s going to be an aura of doubt, even after the verdict is in.” Syracuse University’s Thompson sees it all as a parable on the power of celebrity. “The power of celebrity is arguably one of the most powerful social and cultural forces in this country,” he said. “It leaves an amazing amount of carnage in its wake. And, unfortunately, some of the carnage is newspapers and broadcast TV operations.” Source: http://www.sptimes.com/2004/01/11/Columns/Michael_Jackson_s_mol.shtml

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