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Simpson Case a Big-Ticket Boon for Tabloid Media : News: Huge potential audiences fuel bidding wars for scoops. Some outlets also have won new critical respect.

October 07, 1995|SCOTT COLLINS and SALLIE HOFMEISTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When O.J. Simpson threw a post-verdict bash at his Brentwood mansion Tuesday night, the guest list included family, friends, attorneys--and at least one photographer.

To most, the affair was free. But not to Star magazine, which clinched a deal with Simpson's representatives even before the verdict was known to pay a six-figure sum for the celebration party pictures. The supermarket tabloid plans to publish the photos in Monday's issue.

Star's archrival, the Globe newspaper, says it was offered the opportunity to buy the celebration pictures two weeks before the trial ended. But Globe decided to pursue a different scoop and last week published gruesome pictures of the crime victims.

Although the controversial verdicts have divided America, tabloid journalists are united: The Simpson murder case has become the biggest tabloid story ever, surpassing Elvis, Jackie and even the British royal family.

And this week has seen an unsurpassed frenzy of interview- and access-buying by agents of the newspapers and television programs competing for the scoop. Cash offers of $30,000 and more rained on South-Central Los Angeles and elsewhere this week as editors and producers frantically sought exclusives with Simpson jurors.

"It's the sustained level of interest in a single story that sets this [case] apart," said Everette Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University.

"A $100,000 fee for a single interview has not been uncommon in the past, but what you haven't seen until now is an initial fee beginning a chain of fees and activities," Dennis added. "This is like a very complex interactive soap opera, and we have several months of it left."

Analysts say the Simpson trial has made the tabloid media stronger than ever, in terms of not only audience share but also critical respect.

TV shows like "Hard Copy" and "Entertainment Tonight" reaped ratings bonanzas with this week's Simpson coverage. In the six months after the June, 1994, murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, Star's already staggering 2.6-million circulation jumped 10%.

Critics have for years scoffed at such reporting practices as "checkbook journalism." The Los Angeles Times and other mainstream news organizations have strict rules prohibiting any payments to get news sources to talk.

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But for perhaps the first time, tabloids are landing scoops that not only beat the mainstream media, according to some critics, but also help inform public debate and even affect judicial proceedings involving a matter of national interest.

The National Enquirer--once perhaps best known as a defendant in celebrity libel cases--won plaudits for breaking stories about Simpson's purchase of a knife shortly before the murders and his alleged history of stalking.

What most abetted this tabloid breakthrough is the nature of the Simpson saga itself.

"Next week we'll have people crying for O.J. relief," predicted National Enquirer Executive Editor Steve Coz. "But this story has everything: It's America, it's Hollywood, a big celebrity, a double murder, sex, children, indications of drugs. It's got it all."

Many of the tabloid TV shows are controlled by large entertainment companies. This may lead to unwelcome synergy when the topic du jour is movie or TV star peccadilloes. "Hard Copy" and "Extra," for instance, are distributed by Paramount and Warner Bros., respectively.

But the corporate backing has helped give producers and reporters deep pockets when pursuing hot leads and exclusive interviews. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the Simpson case.

For example, shortly after the murders, when he was identified as the chauffeur who drove Simpson to Los Angeles International Airport, Allan Park fielded numerous requests for paid interviews. He turned them all down, he said, including an offer of $60,000 to sell his story to "A Current Affair."

"I didn't feel it was right to make yourself substantial sums of money off two people's deaths," he explained in a recent interview. "I don't want to be discredited . . . like so many others."

Fiercely competing for market share, the tabloid shows have expended huge effort in recent weeks scrambling for interviews, although producers of those programs say they can't beat their supermarket brethren when it comes to payments.

"They have so much more money than we do and so many more reporters," lamented one television producer.

Several shows claimed they had policies against paying for interviews, though most industry executives said payments are camouflaged through gifts such as airline tickets and hotel stays.

Or they may be disguised by calling sources by another name. "Extra" says it does not pay for interviews, but it hired Faye Resnick, a friend of Nicole Simpson, as a consultant to help shape coverage after the verdict this week.

The role of tabloids in the case is so pervasive that potential news sources quickly become savvy about their money-making possibilities.

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