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For some, Jackson verdict is already in

REGARDING MEDIA / TIM RUTTEN

June 11, 2005|TIM RUTTEN

As trials of the century go, Michael Jackson's is turning out to be a pretty low-key affair.

There are several reasons for that:

Without the soap opera effect created by cameras in the courtroom, trials no longer become the subject of the nation's casual conversation, as they once did. In our wired world, the majority of Americans apparently find little entertainment value in discussing people and events they haven't seen for themselves. No eye contact, no obsession seems to be the rule in these matters.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 24, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Sexual privacy quotation -- The Regarding Media column in the June 11 Calendar section attributed a famed defense of sexual privacy, "so long as they don't do it in the streets and frighten the horses," to Oscar Wilde. The quote is actually by actress Beatrice Campbell.

The nature of the charges against the singer makes it distasteful for most people under most circumstances. There are few well-strung-together people willing to engage in a detailed, no-holds-barred discussion of child molestation -- alleged or proved -- even in private, let alone in a public place or social gathering. Moreover, trials involving charges of sex crimes inevitably narrow down to tests of the credibility between accuser and accused. There's no who-done-it to engage the collective imagination. That's why so much of the conversation that has attended Jackson's trial and the jury's subsequent deliberations has been about his eccentricities, lifestyle or finances. For those so inclined, there's plenty to talk about there.

Finally, all this "King of Pop" stuff notwithstanding, the fact is that Jackson isn't that much of a celebrity anymore -- at least not in the United States, where trials of the century long have been a popular blood sport. By Thursday, there were 2,200 members of the working press accredited to cover the events around the Santa Maria courthouse, but they came from 33 countries. These days, Jackson is an international celebrity but more or less a domestic curiosity.

There is one striking difference between, say, the O.J. Simpson case, which set the standard by which these events are judged, and this millennium's first trial of the century.

Over the last few years, an entire segment of the U.S. news media essentially has elected to pursue its commercial interests by seceding from American journalism. This group includes most of the commentator/personalities on Fox News -- with the notable exception of Greta van Susteren; the prime-time segment of CNN Headline News; and, most particularly, Court TV.

These operations no longer feel constrained by even the minimal requirements of fairness, balance or dispassion required to practice American-style journalism. Instead, they operate as an unapologetic cheering section for the prosecution. They've never met a criminal defendant they didn't want to see slammed -- Michael Jackson prominent among them.

No verdict; no problem.

We already know he's guilty. Besides, we're on the side of victims.

If you watched this week's coverage of the watch on the Jackson jury, you must have lost count of the number of times Nancy Grace -- Court TV's harpy in chief and the dark star of Headline News -- looked into the camera and, with swimming eyes and quivering lower lip, began a sentence by saying, "As a crime victim myself, I ...."

It is impossible not to know at this point that Grace's fiance was murdered in the course of a robbery. People are entitled to grieve as they must -- unless, to gloss Wilde's defense of sexual privacy, they do it in the road and frighten the horses. Then it becomes a public matter. Here, as so often these days, we confront what has become a pornography of pain.

Once you obliterate the boundaries that used to delineate journalism from advocacy, all sorts of other irritating barriers fall as well. Take, for example, the customary prohibition against using your position in the news media to promote personal interests. All this last week, Grace has been using her shows to promote her new book, "Objection," published this week.

Every one of her shows ended with some sort of plug for it, but the apogee was reached Wednesday. That was the day the book hit the stores and Grace not only discussed her book on both her Court TV and Headline News shows, but also for a full hour on CNN's top-rated show, "Larry King Live." You can't buy that kind of publicity -- unless, of course, you're engaged in the media equivalent of self-dealing.

Grace also feels free to tell interviewers that she dislikes all defense lawyers and writes that "the Founding Fathers set up our Constitution in a way that allows defense attorneys and defendants to literally get away with murder."

Take that, Jim Madison, you victim-hating swine.

Still, Grace is hardly alone in availing herself of the opportunities that abound when all boundaries fall and restraints are lifted. These days, Court TV and other news outlets of this sort are filled with lawyers willing to opine on the guilt of defendants whose trials they never witnessed and psychologists and psychiatrists willing to diagnose people they've never met.

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