Jackson scandal: tabloid case study for 'Frontline'

TURNED ON IN L.A. -- SPRING PREVIEW

January 07, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- It's called "Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Scandal." It's from "Frontline." And, even though it doesn't air on PBS until Feb. 15, it's creating a buzz on the press tour here.

Surprisingly, neither the buzz nor the report is about Jackson and the allegations he faces of child sexual abuse.

"Michael Jackson: Did he or didn't he? This [report] answers that question not a whit." says "Frontline" producer Thomas Lennon. "I know nothing more about that than you and I have all read."

What Lennon does seem to know a lot about is the tabloidization of TV news. And that's what the report is about.

"We use the media feeding frenzy on the Jackson story as a window to look at that process. We cover not the event, but the people covering the event," he says.

What Lennon and correspondent Richard Ben Cramer saw behind the media looking glass is not a very pretty picture, from clips shown to critics yesterday and a press conference that followed.

They start with the tip received by a Los Angeles free-lance reporter saying Jackson was under investigation. They then move on to tabloid publications, like the infamous Sun in London. They interview a columnist based in New York who reported the story for the newspaper's front page. Her gleeful indifference to anything you or I might think of as journalism will send shivers up your spine.

Cramer, an author and former award-winning reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and The [Baltimore] Sun, follows the story on Fleet Street. He shows what those masters of tabloid journalism did with the Jackson story by promising to pay vast sums for information.

And then, Lennon and Cramer reveal how this heavily tainted information found its way onto American tabloid TV shows, such as "A Current Affair" and onto the commercial networks through their nightly newscasts and prime-time newsmagazines.

Lennon says the "Frontline" report tries to answer the question, "What is the mill that such information now goes through?" But that question ultimately leads to a larger one, also asked in the report: "What does it say about us that allegations of child abuse have now become a form of TV entertainment for us?"

Lennon denies "Frontline" is being "holier than thou" in reporting on coverage of the Jackson story. He also denies the program is "trying to ride the Michael Jackson story for its salacious value."

He and "Frontline" executive producer David Fanning say they believe it's "too late to turn back the clock on the trend toward tabloidization" in mainstream TV.

"Nobody at the networks wants to do tabloid TV. It's ratings," says Lennon, a former producer for ABC's "20/20."

"A show like '60 Minutes' doesn't do it, because you don't have to when you make $50 million a year for the network," he says. "But Connie Chung will do Heidi Fleiss, because Connie Chung and her 'Eye to Eye' show are in ratings trouble.

"As the competition increases, production values tend to rise. But editorial quality drops."

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