Jackson case reports falling on deaf ears?

March 07, 2005|By J. Freedom Du Lac | J. Freedom Du Lac,SACRAMENTO BEE

SANTA MARIA, Calif. - Even while breathlessly reporting The Very Latest Lurid Developments in the very latest celebrity justice case of the century, many journalists in the three-parking-lot news circus here are saying the same thing off camera and away from their laptops:

Interest in the Michael Jackson child-molestation trial seems to be sagging at the strangest of times - just as the pop star finally goes on trial after so many years of accusations and innuendo.

The story that figured to be among the biggest of the year has not even been the biggest of this week, due in part to the "ick" factor surrounding the pedophilia charges, Jackson-news fatigue and the ban on cameras in the courtroom.

The domestic tabloids and celebrity magazines have had trouble selling Jackson stories, several editors said. National TV ratings have not been particularly impressive for Jackson segments, either.

But based on the calculus of the case (Jackson's considerable global celebrity and the serious, sensational nature of the charges against him), media organizations around the world have done the predictable, dispatching reporters by the rented carload to Santa Maria - never mind the public's level of interest.

"It's a Hollywood story that's about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," said Art Harris, an Entertainment Tonight reporter. "I think people will come back to it to see ... how Michael Jackson holds up."

Jackson is charged with 10 felony counts - most notably, molesting a 13-year-old boy, plying the child with alcohol and holding the boy and his family against their will. The 46-year-old singer has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

All told, there are 1,460 journalists credentialed to cover a court proceeding that's expected to last up to five months.

Some have leased local apartments. So many journalists have parachuted into this quiet city of 87,000 in Santa Barbara County, in fact, that one of them created a Web site that offers reviews of the finest local eating establishments.

To keep the Olympic-scale media pool from spilling all over Santa Maria, county officials have ringed the courthouse perimeter with two rows of cyclone fencing - and then added layer upon layer of bicycle fence. They're also billing the media pool a daily "impact fee" of $7,500, though an attorney representing several news organizations has requested that the fee be reduced, if not eliminated.

A dozen satellite trucks are parked behind the courthouse, where the hum of engines and generators can be heard around the clock. In the parking lot on the front side of the courts campus, there's a fenced-in area for TV reporters to do live stand-ups in 53 adjacent spaces, each just 3 feet, 6 inches wide.

The big U.S. networks generally hover above this mosh pit: They have each constructed stages and towers around the courthouse, the most impressive of which is NBC's bilevel, 40-foot structure with offices down below and three broadcast sets up high, each with a panoramic view of whatever it is you can see from downtown Santa Maria.

The better views, of course, are in the courtroom. Just 38 news organizations have reserved spots in the 120-seat gallery. A handful of daily passes are given out on a first-come, first-served basis. Another 50 seats are permanently assigned in the "overflow" trailer behind the courtroom, where a closed circuit feed of the trial plays on a 36-inch TV screen and reporters sit on metal folding chairs.

Standing outside the trailer, Graeme Massie, a reporter for the British wire service Splash News, said his take on the significance of the Jackson trial is not aligned with that of his American counterparts.

"It's a huge story," he said. "But I think it is a bigger story outside the United States than in it. There's just an insatiable appetite for this story in the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Japan. News desks in London are waiting for copy on Michael Jackson. Their circulations go up when he's on the front page."

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