SANTA MARIA, Calif. — As jury selection begins today in Michael Jackson's trial on child-molestation charges, some journalists worry that they have already stumbled into uncomfortable new territory. Their concern: an arrangement that could require television stations and newspapers to pay a total of as much as $800,000 to Santa Barbara County to defray the costs of the trial.
Though some journalists agreed to the payments, others said they far exceed what other jurisdictions have charged and smack of "pay-to-play journalism." More ominous, they said, is that the payments continue a pattern in which local officials overseeing high-publicity cases chip away at the long-established principle of free access to public courtrooms.
County officials -- facing a trial expected to cost millions of dollars -- respond that they are only trying to recoup extraordinary costs for accommodating an international media horde. Otherwise, they said, local taxpayers would get stuck with the bill.
"We can support it," said Bob Nisbet, assistant director of Santa Barbara County's General Services Department. "We have specific accounting to support the charges. We are certainly not making money on this."
But even as jury selection begins, the consortium of news organizations that agreed to the payments in May wants to renegotiate the charges.
"We feel strongly that we should not be paying a media tax, that there is a real danger to 1st Amendment principles," said Ted Boutrous, a lawyer representing many of the nation's major news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the television networks. "It's become clear that what they are charging far exceeds any costs that could be attributed to special needs of the media."
Disputes between government administrators and journalists have become somewhat routine as courtroom spectaculars increasingly have become a staple of the media's diet.
In the O.J. Simpson murder trial -- a media pageant a decade ago -- Los Angeles County officials discussed recovering some of their enormous costs. They eventually made a modest demand: charging the media to rent a parking lot across from the downtown criminal courts building. Television and radio stations erected a massive scaffold and broadcast platforms that became known as "Camp O.J."
City and county officials in Northern California made a much bolder attempt to get the media to share expenses in last year's Scott Peterson murder trial in Redwood City.
Initially, they came up with a plan that would have cost each of the television networks nearly $100,000 for services, including the construction, maintenance and policing of a media center on a public plaza.
Hearing that price tag, news managers bolted to private office space a little more than a block away from the San Mateo County Courthouse. Under a scaled-back plan, the county installed and maintained a much smaller "listening room" for reporters who did not fit in the courtroom. The county collected $75,000 over 10 months from TV, radio and print outlets.
By the time Peterson was convicted and sentenced to death in December, local officials and many of those who covered the trial agreed that they had worked out a fair compromise.
But some worry that the Peterson trial helped cement the trend toward court managers looking at the media as cash cows to be milked to pay for expensive trials.
"We come roaring into these small towns, and I think it just looks to them like one big thundering herd. And, to them, one with very deep pockets," said Jennifer Siebens, West Coast bureau chief for CBS News. "We are not deadbeats. We will pay our share. But we want to know what the real costs are."
The alliance of newspapers and television broadcasters agreed to pay a total of $7,500 a day to cover Jackson, but the arrangement has been informal. The Board of Supervisors exempted Santa Barbara County news outlets from paying, reasoning that locals would have covered the courts anyway. Some out-of-town publications and stations have refused to pay.
For those who have footed the bill, the charges have been about $125 per court day for each newspaper and $300 for each national television outfit. Santa Barbara County had collected $114,750 for pretrial coverage by last week.
At the current rate, billings would grow by $750,000 if the case dragged on for five months, as some believe it could.
The county breaks down the $7,500 daily charge this way: $4,300 for six or seven sheriff's deputies to corral and manage the press; about $1,200 for maintenance workers, custodians and management; and $2,000 for physical improvements such as barricades, portable toilets and a revamped "overflow" room for extra journalists.
Some reporters protest that the charges they are being asked to pay for one or two days of coverage in Santa Maria would have gotten them an entire month at Peterson's trial in San Mateo County.