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Jackson trial a media circus, but not all are buying into it

THE BALTIMORE SUN

From live updates on the news networks to nightly re-enactments on the cable channel E!, stories about the Michael Jackson trial have been as difficult to avoid this season as Law and Order spinoffs. But this week, reports about a court ruling in the trial appeared on the front pages of major American newspapers, causing heated debates in newsrooms nationwide about whether a news organization's primary responsibility is to inform its audience about the issues of the day or to entertain them.

Yesterday, the ruling, which allows testimony that Jackson may have previously molested other children, was played on the front page of The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times (which is owned by the Tribune Co., which also owns The Sun).

Broadcast outlets also are devoting major resources to the story. For instance, a report on the Jackson case was the third story Monday night on the CBS Evening News. First came the earthquake. Second was a story noting that Los Angeles has a similar geography to the quake area. The judge's ruling in the King of Pop's trial came third, according to Jennifer Siebens, Los Angeles bureau chief for CBS News.

On cable, Court TV offers updates on the Jackson trial every half-hour. Earlier this month, MSNBC displayed a ticking clock - as Jackson raced to comply with a judge's order to appear in court. Cable Channel E! has responded to the ban on cameras in the courtroom with re-enactments featuring a Jackson impersonator. The daily half-hour show includes legal experts discussing the case.

The story was positioned less prominently in The Sun, The Boston Globe and USA Today. And National Public Radio has included snippets only in its newscast and not as part of its magazine-style programs.

"We've had lots of discussions about how to treat the story," said Leo Wolinsky, deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. "It's a tough one. Page One tells people what kind of newspaper you are - a serious paper or a tabloid. Serious papers want to do stories that people are interested in and that they want to read, but they also don't want to send the wrong signal."

Many newspaper executives think their front pages should be reserved for articles that highlight a larger social problem or that potentially affect many people.

"Celebrity news appeals to the lowest common denominator," said Steve Proctor, deputy managing editor for news of the San Francisco Chronicle. He estimates that a story or photograph on the Jackson trial has appeared on its front page three times since the singer was arrested on the current charges.

"It smacks of tawdriness," said Proctor, who previously was The Sun's deputy managing editor for features and sports. "It seems trivial and inconsequential. Editors want their paper to have a more elevated conversation with readers, at least in the news sections."

The Sun has published many stories pertaining to the accusations since Jackson was charged in December 2003, but just two photographs have made it on the front page.

"We're not convinced this is the trial of the century," said Robert Blau, The Sun's managing editor.

"It's taken up a lot of air time and has been widely discussed, so we can't ignore it. What we try to do is balance the circus atmosphere inside and outside the courtroom with reporting on newsworthy events.

"There's more drama and import in a local witness intimidation case than there has been in a celebrity trial filled with speculation about whether or not Jay Leno will testify."

However, when a verdict is handed down, Blau said he "can't imagine" that the story won't be featured prominently on the front page.

Cable outlets, which have an insatiable appetite for news to fill their round-the-clock broadcasts, have embraced the Jackson trial more warmly.

"That's the one thing we have at cable news - plenty of time to cover a lot of stories," said Mark Effron, MSNBC's vice president for daytime news.

"But it's not Michael Jackson all the time."

Jonathan Klein, president of the U.S. division of Cable News Network, described his network's coverage of the case as relatively sober. "Typically, when you look at measurable audience response to stories like this, the hardcore audience tends to tire quickly of just about any ongoing story," he said.

Not surprisingly, the cable channel devoting the most time to Jackson coverage is Court TV. Its viewership this month (which has been dominated by Jackson coverage) has increased 150 percent over the same period last year, a spokesman said.

Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a think-tank for journalists, said that the appetite for celebrity coverage dates back about 100 years - when architect Stanford White was murdered in what then was called "the trial of the century."

Newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s also were filled with accounts of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case, and the rape trial of comedian Fatty Arbuckle, widely considered the first Hollywood celebrity trial.

"This issue goes back to the end of the 19th century, with the creation of the penny press and popular journalism," Clark said.

"We think the human interest story always existed, but it didn't. It was created in a highly competitive newspaper environment to satisfy the interests of a new generation of readers, including women and immigrants. It was widely condemned by people who thought that that violated the media's public interest role."

It is the responsibility of journalists, he added, to know the difference between significant and titillating events. "Journalists have a responsibility to make the important interesting rather than to just continually try to make us believe the interesting is important."

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