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On View : The Gloves Are Off : ANYTHING GOES IN DIANE SAWYER'S 'PRIMETIME' INTERVIEW WITH JACKSON

June 11, 1995|JANE HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — When she sits down to interview Michael Jackson live Wednesday night, Diane Sawyer will have no shortage of questions--and no restrictions on what she can ask.

"There are no ground rules about my questions," Sawyer says, in a recent interview, "and I'll ask [Jackson] about everything: the child-molestation allegations, his marriage, his creative process, the incredible pressures he has been living under during the past two years. Here you have this phenomenon, the highest revenue-earning entertainer, who has been through a singular storm, with many questions left unanswered. He and I have not discussed this yet, but I have a feeling he has a lot he wants to say."

The session--Jackson's first interview in more than two years--also will include a brief interview with Jackson's wife, Lisa Marie Presley-Jackson. This will be the first time the two have been interviewed together since the Gloved One and Elvis' daughter surprised the pop world with their marriage last year. When Sawyer met the couple recently, she says, "He seemed shy, but they were funny and playful together."

The interview, which will air on ABC's "PrimeTime Live," is a coup for Sawyer, who won out over a slew of competitors, including the network's own Barbara Walters. Sawyer gets the opportunity to ask Jackson about his music and his controversial life as he releases his first new album in four years. The last time Jackson was interviewed, by Oprah Winfrey in a live prime-time special on ABC, the interview attracted a huge audience (a 36.3 rating with a 56 share) and was the highest-rated special program for 1993.

Much has happened to the 36-year-old entertainer since he talked to Winfrey. Last year he faced a highly publicized investigation of allegations he molested a 13-year-old boy. Prosecutors later declined to file any charges.

The release of Jackson's new album, which debuts on June 20 with a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, is viewed in the record industry as a referendum on whether Jackson can still sell millions of albums to music consumers after several years without a new release.

Jackson has maintained from the beginning of the scandal that he is innocent of the accusations. According to Sawyer, the new album, called "HIStory Present Past and Future Book 1," presents his angry views about the accusations.

"One of the songs--'Scream,' a duet with his sister Janet--is a full attack on on the kinds of pressures he's been under," Sawyer says of the song, which includes angry references to schemes and unseen attackers. "There are a lot of interesting questions to be asked about what rights does he have and what kinds of coverage did he receive."

Another song, "Childhood," also raises intriguing issues: It is accompanied by a self-portrait of Jackson as a frightened child with a microphone, saying that people should know his childhood before they judge him.

Although it is likely that Sawyer's questions about Jackson's personal life will make the biggest headlines after the interview, the TV journalist says she is looking forward to talking to Jackson about his music and his perfectionism in the recording studio. Sawyer and her crew plan to shoot footage of Jackson finishing the new album in California for a videotaped piece that will air at the beginning of the live interview. The interview was scheduled at the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, a site selected by Jackson, in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but the location was changed to a studio after the museum received phone calls from fans after the location was published.

The Jackson interview is a high-profile "get" for "PrimeTime" and Sawyer, who first put in her request for an interview 18 months ago. (According to Bob Jones, Jackson's spokesman, Jackson agreed to be interviewed by Sawyer because "he had met her and knew her work as a journalist.")

But the "PrimeTime Live" anchor says the Jackson interview does not represent a new direction in her work. "Everyone always wants to take one interview and turn it into a statement about your work," Sawyer says. "I enjoy doing celebrity profiles. But week in and week out, 'PrimeTime' is primarily an investigative show."

Sawyer recently reported on an investigation into bureaucratic waste and mismanagement in public schools. "We won a Peabody award this season, and we have won four Investigative Reporters and Editors awards in the past five years."

Sawyer began co-anchoring the newsmagazine "Day One" with Forrest Sawyer in January; the low-rated program was not renewed by ABC for its upcoming fall season. "I loved the correspondents and the producers on 'Day One,' and I'm sorry we didn't get the chance to catch our breath this summer," says Sawyer, who adds that she had been planning to devote more time to "Day One" this summer.

Sawyer, who will anchor several hourlong "Turning Point" documentaries on ABC next fall, says she hopes the "Day One" staff can be absorbed into the expanded documentary staff. But she rejects the notion that the cancellation of "Day One" and "Eye to Eye" on CBS signals the decline of newsmagazines. "I think all this shows is, that you can't have two newsmagazines against each other [in the same time slot]," she says. "There still are newsmagazines doing well on the networks every night of the week."

"PrimeTime Live" airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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