The Tabloids Uncovered: PBS Probes the Selling of the Jackson Scandal (Feb 15 1994)


Staff member
The Tabloids Uncovered: PBS Probes the Selling of the Jackson Scandal
Dayton Daily News
Feb 15, 1994

Where are you, Paddy Chayefsky, now that we need you?

When Chayefsky's satirical 1976 film Network depicted a fourth-place TV news department that would air anything for a rating, it seemed laughable.

Not many of us are laughing now.

When the sex-tinged exploits of Gennifer Flowers, William Kennedy Smith, Amy Fisher, Lorena Bobbitt, Heidi Fleiss, the Menendez brothers and Michael Jackson top the evening news, it may be time to ask what the definition of "news" is - and whether journalists ought to be paying money for it.

PBS delivers a searing indictment of media purveyors of sleaze-and-tease news tonight in a one-hour Frontline documentary, Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Scandal.

When police raided Jackson's Los Angeles home last August and allegations of child sexual abuse were fired at the superstar, Frontline was ready for it. They had been looking for a hot story to use as the backdrop for an examination of tabloid TV.

"I sensed a story that looked like it was going to be a media feeding frenzy," Frontline producer Thomas Lennon said. They would cover not the event but the frenzy.

What they witnessed was a melee fueled by paid news sources. The first wave came from rabid British newspapers such as The London Sun and News of the World.

"The British tabloids are the masters of this science," Lennon said. "They're stunningly good at what they do. It's demonstrable that if you get a big name and drag that person through the mud, your circulation numbers will go up X and Y. And if you don't do it, you will be replaced by someone who will. The forces are immense."

Syndicated tabloids such as Hard Copy, Geraldo, A Current Affair andInside Edition soon leaped into the fray.

Before long, network newsmagazines such as Day One, Prime Time Live, 20/20 and Eye to Eye With Connie Chung started to worry they were getting beaten on a big story.

And the networks began scrambling to catch up.

Respected news correspondents were swimming uneasily in unfamiliar waters.

Chayefsky must have smiled when the Jackson scandal led an edition of the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.

The networks, at least, weren't as eager as the British press and The National Enquirer to engage in checkbook journalism - if indeed you can call it journalism.

Frontline recalls the actions of the Quindoys, Jackson's former housekeepers.

The London Sun paid them $25,000 to talk about "MJ" two years ago, according to reporter Alan Hall, "and they didn't have a bad word to say about the guy. Not one bad thing."

When the story broke and the ante was raised, the Quindoys suddenly became talkative. ABC's Prime Time Live sent a producer to the Philippines to talk to the couple but they balked. ABC wasn't offering cash, just a chat with Diane Sawyer.

Then News of the World waved British pounds. The tabloid had the last laugh, getting enough information out of the Quindoys during negotiations to splash the story over three pages - without paying for it.

"When you buy a story, there's always the shadow of doubt," Sun reporter Caroline Graham says. "Are they telling you the truth, or are they telling you what you want to hear?"

Frontline engages in a bit of lurid journalism itself, including some salacious comments from Howard Stern to LaToya Jackson on his radio show, but the program's central theme is well-stated. The trend toward tabloidization of news in America may be irreversible.

One man who agrees is John Beard. He anchored the news for 13 years at KNBC-TV in Los Angeles.

In December, not long after the station devoted 16 minutes of one newscast to the Jackson scandal, Beard jumped in disgust to Fox-owned KTTV - giving up a $950,000 a year salary to take a 50 percent pay cut.

Asked why, he said he thought KNBC had turned to sleaze and tease in its quest for ratings.

In a memo made public when he quit, he admonished his bosses: "If you call it news, make sure it is. Example: 16 minutes of Michael Jackson isn't."

A few nights later, his new station led its 10 p.m. newscast with a 12-minute report on Jackson.

Indy Researcher TSColdMan