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Television Shifts Into High Gear to Report on Jackson Arrest Warrant

November 20, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — President Bush was on an important trip to Britain, but it was an arrest warrant for Michael Jackson that prompted ABC, CBS and NBC to interrupt programming for special reports Wednesday.

As the media frenzy surrounding the singer escalated, TV news juggled pop and politics, and attempted to sift out the truth as rumors flew on the Internet and were repeated on cable. Celebrity chroniclers vied with lawyers for air time.

Even ABC's "Nightline," which usually opts for policy stories, was torn between topics, and eventually, after a spirited internal debate, postponed a report on the president's Britain trip for one on Jackson. Cable news channels, with more time to fill, cut between Bush's dinner with Queen Elizabeth II and the "King of Pop's" Neverland Ranch.

"Michael Jackson is arguably the biggest pop star in the world," said NBC News spokeswoman Allison Gollust. After it was revealed that a warrant had been issued, "we felt it significant enough to let people know right away," she said.

A raucous news conference with Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Thomas Sneddon Jr. was carried live on cable. The atmosphere was denounced in a statement issued on behalf of Jackson, which said in part, "We are disturbed by the levity of the environment surrounding the announcement of these very serious charges."

Sneddon said that law enforcement officials would not be appearing on television to discuss the case, despite a flood of requests. That left Jackson biographers and defense attorneys to fill the time, on topics ranging from analogies to the O.J. Simpson case to speculation over whether Sneddon was grandstanding to criticism of the parents of the alleged victim.

"This is the mode we go into," said Mark Effron, vice president of live news programming for cable's MSNBC. "We're like dog lives," he said, referring to the fast-paced cycle of reports, which moved in just a few hours from speculation over whether a warrant existed to MSNBC host Pat Buchanan saying, "You could see [Jackson] going to prison," and a guest lawyer musing about how any discovery of child pornography -- if any was found at all -- could affect the case.

Effron, who also was dealing with sources offering to sell video that could relate to the case, said all reports adhered to NBC News standards and that the network was rejecting some reports from among the vast number coming in from freelancers, network correspondents and NBC-affiliated programs such as "Access Hollywood." "At NBC News, we have a pretty good vetting procedure for this information," he said, but he also noted that "intense speculation" is part of what cable news does.

The story was "getting more lurid by the hour," said Fox News Channel's John Gibson, introducing a report from foxnews.com gossip columnist Roger Friedman, which included serious new allegations against Jackson. The report, Friedman said, came from "a very good source," and has "sort of been confirmed to me."

A Fox News spokesman said there were no editorial executives available to comment on the channel's standards for reports using anonymous sources and that "we will be happy to get them to you tomorrow."

Speculation on Jackson's whereabouts was a hot topic. If and when Jackson surfaced in a public place, there would be "one media circus that is not going to stop," said lawyer Mickey Sherman on MSNBC.

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