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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Forget the Facts--We Want the Story! : Media: Allegations surrounding Michael Jackson set off a whirlwind of tabloidesque reports from dubious and so-called legitimate news sources alike.

August 27, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The facts we are about to bring you may be unfounded rumors. But . . . what the hell.

If there ever was much of a line separating many so-called legitimate news organizations from the yellowest of tabloids in the 1990s, the Michael Jackson Media Caper is the howitzer that's blasting it into oblivion. All across the globe, Inquiring Minds are having a heyday.

The defining volley arguably came Wednesday when "CBS News This Morning" anchor Paula Zahn was called upon to seek the real scoop about the ALLEGED scandal from Diane Dimond, star reporter of dubious distinction for the syndicated "Hard Copy." That's right, the CBS News source list is now headed by one of the most aggressively shoddy and dishonest programs on the air.

Zahn to Dimond: "Was there any suggestion that other children were involved?" And later: "We heard some stories that some photos were involved, too. Have you heard anything about that?" Dimond said she "was workin' on that angle," but it appeared that Zahn and CBS News executives would have to be patient and watch "Hard Copy" themselves to find out just what she had up her sleeve.

Rehashing the granite-inscribed allegations about Jackson and a 13-year-old youth would serve no good purpose here, but suffice to say that CBS News gave Dimond the V.I.P. treatment, in effect legitimizing "Hard Copy" while undermining its own credibility.

Other mainstream newscasts have routinely slipped tabloid front pages and headlines--most memorably the New York Post's "Peter Pan or Pervert?" banner--into their Jackson coverage. Another favorite has been that notorious London rag, the Sun, whose cover photo of Jackson and The Boy (whose face was partially blocked out by Los Angeles stations) has been widely featured. A columnist from the Sun has been interviewed concerning the paper's decision to print The Boy's name--as if it had any ethics to breach in the first place--and KCAL-TV Channel 9 quoted the tabloid in detail concerning a sealed police report.

"Inside Edition," which self-righteously shuns the tabloid label itself, interviewed a London Daily Mirror columnist and got some other crucial information about Jackson's activities from a "Michael Jackson follower." The show's policy is to "protect the identity of alleged child abuse victims," said anchor Bill O'Reilly shortly after "Inside Edition" showed footage of Jackson and The Boy, whose face was identifiable despite being electronically marbleized. KNBC-TV Channel 4's own marbleization of the face was equally ineffective.

And of course "Hard Copy," which also got quoted on CNN's "Larry King Live," weighed in with Dimond's "very detailed account" in addition to choice Jackson anecdotes regarding kids from an anonymous "limo driver."

It was "CBS This Morning" again, this time on Thursday, which demonstrated just how a story like this balloons into an 800-pound gorilla, taking on a menacing life of its own far beyond any identifiable factual base. At one point Zahn asked a CBS News reporter, Rick Frederickson in Bangkok, Thailand (where Jackson's reported illness caused temporary suspension of his worldwide "Dangerous" tour), about "reports yesterday of a suicide attempt."

What reports? From tabloids? Whatever these "reports" or whether they had substance--Frederickson could not validate them--they now flew across the airwaves, settling into the public consciousness along with other "facts" in the case. Thus, others in the mainstream media may now feel compelled to follow up these "reports" and, warranted or not, further extend their life.

Next on the Jackson interview list was pop psychologist Joyce Brothers, seen earlier this week introducing stand-up comics on the Arts & Entertainment network's "An Evening at the Improv." Among other things, Zahn wanted to know from Brothers how parents could prepare their children "if it is determined that these allegations are indeed true." Thus the big jump, from scattershot reporting of unproved allegations to a speculative question that appeared to reinforce these allegations.

Channel 4 has been in the forefront of straight investigative reporting of the Jackson story, and KTLA-TV Channel 5 has been the most cautious. Even tabloid programs have couched their reporting on Jackson in disclaimers, noting that nothing so far has been proved. Yet these are straws in a gale wind of scarring publicity that all the prime-time Oprah Winfrey interviews in the world will never be able to erase.

And if further evidence was needed that the unproved charge had become the fact--and that Jackson had been unfairly put in the position of having to disprove guilt--it came on Channel 9, which quoted someone as saying about The Boy that recently his "mood changed (and) he became more withdrawn, which parents say can be a sign of trauma." Viewers could draw their own conclusions.

Meanwhile, it seemed inevitable that The Boy would be sacrificed on the altar of The People's Right To Know.

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