An icon topples, and journalists feast


He'd had eight hours of sleep in six days. One more cup of coffee would send his brain into seizure. And a lady holding on Line 1 thought he was a vulture.

But there was no time to worry about that.

It was 10 minutes to deadline Tuesday at the Hollywood studios of "A Current Affair," and, as the crew scrambled frantically to wrap up the Big Story, bureau chief Mike Watkiss was beginning to wonder if this was the day it finally happened -- "dead air." In 10 minutes, the show would be fed by satellite to Fox Television subscribers around the globe -- with or without his contribution.

"Pop it, baby, pop it!" Mr. Watkiss shouted, clapping his hands as the sound bites whirred through studio speakers in the final edit.

"Hey, Mike, what's happening?" a passerby asked Mr. Watkiss, 36, who paced the hall with red eyes and perfect hair, dragging hard on a cigarette.

"Whaddya think's happening?" Mr. Watkiss barked. "Michael Jackson."

It's been a busy year in the turgid world of tabloid journalism: Burt and Loni, Woody and Soon Yi, Heidi Fleiss, the Menendez brothers, John Wayne Bobbitt.

But nothing can touch the Jackson scandal. Since the eccentric megastar was accused in August of molesting a 13-year-old companion, the story has been a frenzied feast for journalism's bottom-feeders.

Since Mr. Jackson returned to the United States from drug rehabilitation to face civil allegations and possible criminal charges, new accusers have surfaced almost daily -- a former maid, an ex-Jackson dancer, the singer's sister, LaToya.

"We have to protect Michael Jackson's rights to a fair trial," protested Jackson attorney Johnnie Cochran, who had asked the California Superior Court to impose a gag order barring attorneys from discussing information arising out of the civil suit.

"This case should not be tried by the media," said Mr. Cochran.

But anyone who thinks the lid can be put back on the Jackson story need look only at the camera crews swarming day and night outside Mr. Jackson's Neverland ranch, or at the megabucks being paid to ex-employees willing to dish new dirt on their former boss, or at the fevered expressions worn by Mr. Watkiss and other tabloid journalists assigned to the scandal.

For them, Mr. Jackson's misfortune is the thrill of a lifetime.

"It's already the biggest story of the decade, and it's getting bigger all the time," said Alex Fragnito, Mr. Watkiss' cameraman.

"When it goes to court, it's going to be the Jurassic Park of stories. If he's convicted, it will blow the top off that. Where does it stop? It's the biggest story of my lifetime."

"It's like the fall of the Berlin Wall," Mr. Watkiss said. "It's like watching an icon being pulled down."

Last week, though, Mr. Watkiss and company were playing catch-up. They had a story on the waning influence of Anthony Pellicano, Jackson's flamboyant private investigator.

The rival show, "Hard Copy," had been running ads all morning promoting its "world exclusive interview" with Mr. Jackson's former maid, who claimed she had quit in disgust after years of watching the singer bathing and sleeping with young boys.

Scoop city.

Mr. Watkiss groused that "Hard Copy" had paid big bucks for the maid's story. "A hundred large [$100,000] is what I heard," he said. "It's ridiculous, totally out of hand.

"But," he added, "I'm not going to come off as holier than thou. It would be the pot calling the kettle black. We all do it. The Brits started it. Checkbook journalism -- it's the cancer of the industry."

By some accounts, the disease has become more insidious -- and expensive -- with the Jackson case.

"It used to be a lot of money when we doled out $8,000 or $10,000. Now that seems like chump change," an industry insider lamented recently. "It's getting to the point where the six-figure deal is commonplace."

Mr. Jackson's lawyers say the National Enquirer paid $30,000 for the story's first big bombshell -- the report of the caseworker who interviewed Mr. Jackson's 13-year-old accuser.

Mr. Jackson's bodyguards, who claimed to have seen young boys come and go from the singer's bedroom, tried initially to peddle the story for $200,000. "Hard Copy," which bought the interviews, paid $50,000 by some accounts, $100,000 by others.

Even the airline hand who saw Mr. Jackson arrive back in Santa Barbara, Calif., by jet on Dec. 10 got $2,000 for his account.

Mr. Watkiss offered no apologies for tabloid journalism. A Salt Lake City native, he earned an anthropology degree at Stanford and a master's in journalism from Columbia. "I'm like a classically trained musician who prefers to play rock and roll," he said.

Inside the studio, the final edit was finished with just six minutes to spare. Mr. Watkiss thrust the cartridge at an assistant, who raced for the transmission room, where the story would be beamed to New York and on to affiliates.

"Hump, baby, hump!" Mr. Watkiss yelled.

Someone sighed -- Harley Tat, the field producer, who was slumping into a chair.

The seven-member "Current Affair" crew had produced 20 Jackson stories in six weeks from three continents. This time, Mr. Tat said, "I really didn't think we were going to make it."

The phone rang. For Mr. Watkiss.

"The ranch is for sale?" he said, looking around at his exhausted colleagues.

No one had to guess which ranch; it was Neverland, of course.

"Do you have documentation on that?" Mr. Watkiss said. "Can you come over this afternoon?"

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