There's a huge story to be told about the tabloidization of American media in recent years. Unfortunately, despite its self-important claims, "Frontline" misses much of it in "Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Scandal," at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).
The idea and the approach seem solid enough: Take a high-visibility celebrity scandal and deconstruct it. Show how a rumor -- if it's sexy or scandalous enough -- gets pounced on by the tabloid press and then winds up leading the "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather and Connie Chung."
In this case, it's the story of Michael Jackson's alleged sexual relationship with a 10-year-old boy. The media mania surrounding the story has quieted in recent weeks with Jackson's multi-million-dollar settlement payment to the boy, now 14, and the boy's father.
"Michael Jackson is our window into the new news business," correspondent Richard Ben Cramer says in setting up the report.
"Frontline" producer Thomas Lennon shows how the Jackson story started in California, with a free-lance reporter getting a tip that Jackson's ranch had been raided by police. After the raid was confirmed with the locksmith who accompanied police to Jackson's home, the story makes its way onto KNBC, the NBC-owned station in Los Angeles.
Once the story is broadcast on KNBC, the British tabloids go all-out for it.
"Frontline's" best work in "Tabloid Truth" is the background it offers on Fleet Street's tabloid press.
"We will take a shred of evidence and try to turn it into a story," one tabloid editor says proudly.
The tabloids' perspective is suggested by a columnist who calls the Jackson story "the story of the decade . . . one of the great stories of the century."
Tabloid editors and reporters talk frankly about paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get servants, maids, bodyguards and others to talk about Jackson.
Frontline follows that segment with some more nice work, showing those values at work in American tabloid TV shows, such as "Hard Copy" and "Current Affair."
But, after that, the report runs out of gas or, perhaps, loses its nerve. While it revels in looking down its nose at tabloid TV and "the Brits," it pulls its punches on how tabloid values have influenced network TV and virtually every newspaper in America.
"Tabloid Truth" takes a jab or two at network news. It shows "The CBS Evening News," for example, getting hustled by the Jackson camp and doing a 180-degree turn in less than 24 hours on whether the boy's father was trying to blackmail Jackson. "Frontline" does mention prime-time shows, such as "PrimeTime Live" and "Now With Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric," in passing.
But it doesn't start to show how close shows such as "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung" or "Day One" are in values to "A Current Affair" or "Hard Copy." More important, "Frontline" never attempts to explain how or why we've come to this in the mainstream press.
The how and why of the decline of TV news, from the era of Edward R. Murrow to one in which "Dateline NBC" rigs GMC trucks to explode in test crashes, is part of the story. The confusion and soul-searching by the country's newspaper editors about how to play stories like the Jackson scandal are also part of it.
But these are ignored.
Don't let me steer you completely off "Tabloid Truth." It's worth watching. Its anatomy-of-a-scandal approach makes for informative TV --as far as it goes.
Just understand that it falls short in providing real understanding of why Lorena Bobbitt, Michael Jackson and Tonya Harding have come to own page one and, consequently, dominate our national dialogue. Like tabloid TV itself, there's lots more sizzle than steak in "Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Scandal."