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Media Go Wild for Jackson; Rush Returns to Radio

Aired November 23, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Wacko for Jacko. The media go wild as Michael Jackson is accused of being a child molester. Are they turning the tawdry case into another circus like Kobe and Laci, and have they winked at years at bizarre behavior because the King of pop is a ratings bonanza?

Rush out of rehab. Limbaugh returns to charges of hypocrisy. Can he overcome his critics and an investigation?

And tea and no sympathy. Fleet Street's red neck alert for George Bush.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn a critical lens on the wall to wall round the clock. This just in: sensational and relentless coverage of a certain case of alleged child molestation.


DAN RATHER, CBS: Pop star Michael Jackson is free on bail tonight after surrendering to California authorities.

TOM BROKAW, NBC: Michael Jackson surrendered to authorities on charges of child molestation.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN: We cannot take our eyes off the Michael Jackson story.

KURTZ (voice-over): Not since O.J. Simpson's low-speed car chase have so many media cameras been trained on one man surrendering to police. A long, almost comical vigil at the Santa Barbara Airport.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN: Are we confirming this? Is this indeed Michael Jackson's airplane?

KURTZ: And on the freeway, pointless pictures of planes and cars as the pop singer turned himself in. All for this five-second money shot. The local D.A. has been deluged with interview requests as he explained at a news conference.

TOM SNEDDON, SANTA BARBARA D.A.: The sheriff and I are not going on any TV programs. KURTZ: Jackson's brother defended him with an expletive that had to be deleted.

JERMAINE JACKSON, MICHAEL JACKSON'S BROTHER: You put these people on national TV, on international TV, and they say these things. But I am sick and (EXPLETIVE DELETED) tired of everybody saying these things about my family.

KURTZ: On front pages across the country, Jackson competed with or overshadowed President Bush's British visit and the latest attacks in Turkey. And a small army of lawyers, ex-prosecutors, entertainment critics and Jackson pals blitzed the cable airwaves.

Of course, Jackson's weird behavior has been out in the open for years. But the networks have continued to merchandise the moonwalker with heavily-promoted specials. CBS had to cancel the latest one planned for next week.


KURTZ: So are the media now in a Neverland of retched excess? Joining me now here in Washington, Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of "National Review Online." In New York, James Wolcott, contributing editor for "Vanity Fair." And in Los Angeles, Jane Velez-Mitchell, correspondent for the syndicated program "Celebrity Justice."

Jane Velez-Mitchell, what's it like to be out there with the media mob watching this plane land and wondering whether Michael Jackson is on board?

JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, "CELEBRITY JUSTICE": It's wild and it is a scramble. And I'll tell you, you show up there and you're in a suit and high heels and you're running and your hose is getting ripped and people are pushing and shoving you. My photographer was nicked by the actual caravan as it went into the sheriff's booking center. We even tragically saw a photographer collapse on the ground from a local Santa Barbara TV station, and sadly, he later died of an apparent heart attack.

KURTZ: That is awful. But didn't you feel a little silly playing this cat and mouse game, wondering where he is, when he'll emerge, whether you'll get the shot?

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, I might feel a little silly at times, but I think it is a very legitimate story. And when I was up in Santa Maria covering the civil case, where Marcel Avrahm (ph), the promoter, was suing Michael Jackson, I shouted out a question and Michael Jackson answered me.

And for a second, his mask dropped, figuratively perhaps, and literally, and he said, to hell with Gloria Allred, because that's who I asked him about. And for one split second, we saw the real Michael Jackson behind the facade. And I think it was worth all that scrambling to get that authentic, genuine moment, because all these celebrities come out there with their mask and with their persona that they don't want us to crack, and we have to chase after them to crack it.

KURTZ: Got it. OK. James Wolcott, why is everybody, CNN, "The New York Times," Tom, Dan, Peter "Dateline" going nut over an entertainer who hasn't been all that popular for about 15 years?

JAMES WOLCOTT, "VANITY FAIR": Well, because it is a very tawdry story and because there is a lot of back-story to it. It isn't something that you have to create out of nothing. I mean, things like the Laci Peterson case, you have to sort of whip it out of nothing.

This one, there's a long, back-story. And you know I can't help but think that when his mug shot appeared it looked like an Andy Warhol Polaroid. Everything about this case is slightly dated because we have been through it before.

KURTZ: Right, exactly.

WOLCOTT: But now it's much more serious because there's no way he can settle it.

KURTZ: Jonah Goldberg, is Michael Jackson being convicted by the media?

JONAH GOLDBERG, "NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE": I think somewhat, yes. I mean, I think...

KURTZ: And you're not troubled by this?

GOLDBERG: Not terribly, because I actually think he's guilty. But -- and I think James raises a very good point about how this is a continuation of a story. In many ways, I liken it to the O.J. Simpson case.

What if O.J. Simpson were accused of murdering somebody else? It would create a similar sort of frenzy. Michael Jackson has faced these charges before. There is a widespread and I think legitimate perception that he basically used his money and connections to buy his way out from facing the consequences, in many ways the way O.J. Simpson did. And so, in many ways, the media feels it's got to go back on this story just as hard because it was an open-ended story that Michael Jackson escaped justice the first time.

KURTZ: Well, it seems like everybody has an opinion on this and everybody is happy to express it before the cameras. Let's take a look at some of the chatter on the airwaves about the Jackson case.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw and witnessed a lot of small little boys. I never saw a little girl.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This story is so silly. It is really -- it's an insult to every kid who has ever been molested by Michael Jackson.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is at war right now, and he's going to use every weapon he has to fight these charges. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lots of memories. It seems that we're certainly poised for the next trial of the next century, doesn't it?


KURTZ: Jane Velez-Mitchell, what do you make of all the friends, the enemies, the lawyers, and people who shared an elevator with Jackson for three minutes all kind of rushing to the microphones?

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, everybody is going to have an opinion. But my bottom line point is that this is a legitimate story. We certainly don't know if Michael Jackson is guilty. That's up to a court of law.

But if one parent out there sees something in this coverage that says -- that sets off an alarm bell and says, you know, the guy down the block, Uncle Jack there that little Johnny is always visiting, maybe I won't let him go on that fishing trip, then we've done a service. And I'll give you an example. Celebrity Justice obtained video of the inside of Michael Jackson's bedroom, and this was shot in 1994, before he had children of his own.

And it is just a child's paradise filled with toys and video games and giant wooden horses and giant Mickey Mouse creatures. And there is a bedroom within the bedroom where -- that's apparently where his sleepover guest stayed, his young boy sleepover guest. I mean, if anybody looks at that and says, gosh, that reminds me of somebody else's bedroom that my child has contact with, then we've done a service. Child molestation is a very, very serious issue in this country.

KURTZ: Right, although I would hasten to point out that television networks don't often cover it as an issue unless a major league celebrity is evolved.

James Wolcott, what do you make of -- you know, is this a public service to show pictures of Michael Jackson's bedroom, or is this just another case of a tabloid tale that everybody in the media can glom onto because it's great for ratings?

WOLCOTT: Well, it's both. I mean, I think one of the things we're fascinated by is -- I think one of the lessons of this week is that it is not always good to be the king. Another case we had this week is Phil Spector being indicted for murder. We have the Rush Limbaugh case we're going to talk about later.

This is a situation where the king, in Michael Jackson's case, the king of pop sets the rules in his kingdom. And he is sort of sequestered from the rest of the world. And when you're the king, you can banish the insiders who displease you and you can try to buy off the outsiders.

So it creates a fascination with well, what exactly goes on inside Neverland, in the same way that people were fascinated by Elvis' Graceland. What do the rooms look like? Why does he need all these chambers? KURTZ: Right.

WOLCOTT: Also, I have to say that my favorite new TV personality is Michael's personal magician, Majestic Magnificent. I mean, you would think calling yourself Majestic would be enough. But no, he's majestic and magnificent.

KURTZ: All these people will become very famous, I am sure.

Jonah Goldberg, speaking of people who are getting the spotlight, Mark Geragos, Jackson's lawyer. The media lionizes people like him. I mean, here's a guy who was a fixture on Larry King and then he represented Susan McDougal and then Wynona Rider. Now he's representing Scott Peterson in that other tabloid fixation, the Laci case. "The New York Times" reports this morning he got 620 calls on his pager from reporters in one 24-hour period.

What do you make of...

GOLDBERG: Well, I think this is a problem we see with all these sorts of stories, where you have these lawyers who are basically the gatekeepers for access for information. They're developed as sources. And so there's just no one on the networks or anywhere else that is willing to sort of criticize them much because it is a competitive problem. And so you get...

KURTZ: Because they need the access?

GOLDBERG: They need the access. And it becomes -- you get a real situation where the portrayal of not just Geragos, but all of these sort of famous TV lawyers whenever they handle these cases, they are treated with total kid gloves because they have the option of just taking their stories to another source.

WOLCOTT: Well also, even if they lost their previous cases. I mean, you see lawyers who lost big cases, but they're now on as legal experts.

KURTZ: I guess winning and losing doesn't matter as much as being good at the sound bites.

Jane Velez-Mitchell, "Newsweek" is reporting this morning that the 13-year-old boy who is the accuser in this case actually appears in some footage of a British documentary about Jackson that aired some time ago talking about he and his brother sleeping in Jackson's bed and how nice a guy Jackson is and so forth. Do you think, as we saw in the Kobe Bryant case, where "The Globe" supermarket tabloid outed the accuser that somebody will put that footage on the air, that somebody will out this child?

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, we have made a conscious decision not to identify the child. We know who the child is, and we are simply not going to go there because obviously it's traumatic enough for this child to have gone through this, if in fact his allegations are true, and then to testify and be a witness, much less with the entire world watching. But we do know that this child is a cancer survivor and has had a really horrific childhood, a very stormy relationship. His parents in a custody battle right now.

So he's already been through hell, and I think to identify him would just exacerbate that. And we're going to try to stay away from that as much as possible while still covering the story.

KURTZ: Well, I hope everybody has that attitude.

Jonah Goldberg, has the press just been too tolerant of this guy's odd relationship with young boys because he's fun and interesting to cover? And so somehow in the past, at least, not many moral judgments have been made?

GOLDBERG: Oh, I think so. I mean, partly, as a conservative, I'm one of these guys who really does believe there's been a death of outrage in all sorts of things.

KURTZ: You can bring it back right here.

GOLDBERG: Michael Jackson also, you know, has given the press so many opportunities to say this is outrageous, but instead people have just said this is fascinating. He actually has an alarm that notifies him when people are approaching his own bedroom in his own house. That is not the sort of thing that someone who has been accused of pedophilia should have. And people just say, well, isn't that interesting?

KURTZ: Right.

James Wolcott, all of these network specials on Michael Jackson, Fox, ABC, everybody has done it. Hasn't television -- excuse the expression -- gotten into bed with Michael Jackson?

WOLCOTT: Well, I think they have, but I think it has been -- there's been several levels to it, because one of the things is that, you know, stand-up comics have been ruthlessly mocking of Michael Jackson for a long time now. So you have a sort of more mainstream entertainment press that, you know, doesn't want to pass judgment on anybody.

I mean, basically, they want the access. But if you listen to stand-up comics, I mean, they have been, you know, jabbing and ridiculing Michael Jackson for a long time. So there's actually a couple levels that it works. But on the mainstream level, they want the access more than they want anything else.

KURTZ: Well, maybe stand-up comics are more on the cutting edge than news organizations. We'll have to hold it there.

Jane Velez-Mitchell in Los Angeles, thanks very much for joining us.

Everyone else, please stand by. When we come back, Rush Limbaugh returns to the airwaves amid charges of hypocrisy. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: America's most popular conservative commentator is back. Rush Limbaugh returned to the microphone this week after five weeks in rehab for his addiction to prescription painkillers. Limbaugh sounded a bit like a self-help guru when describing his road to recovery.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I can't be responsible for anybody's happiness but my own, and if I allow somebody else the power to determine my happiness, then, well, that's something I don't want to do.


KURTZ: But he also promised his 20 million listeners that he hasn't gone soft on them.


LIMBAUGH: Many people feel and think that when you go to a rehabilitation center for addictions or other things that the people in there turn you into a linguini-spined liberal, and that's not true.


KURTZ: Didn't mean to step on Rush there. Still with us to discuss Limbaugh's future, "National Review's" Jonah Goldberg, "Vanity Fair's" James Wolcott.

Jonah, Limbaugh's fans still love him. But hasn't he taken a serious hit in the larger court of public opinion?

GOLDBERG: I think he has taken a serious hit in the larger court of public opinion. But you have to keep in mind, even if Rush lost 50 percent of his listeners, he would still have approximately 10 million listeners which would still keep him on top, which means he's huge. And I think that most of his listeners are going to stick with him for awhile.

KURTZ: James Wolcott, when Limbaugh talked about being reborn and tending to his own happiness, he sounded kind of Oprah-like.

WOLCOTT: Yes, he did, but only when he was talking about himself. You know, once he starts talking about, you know, Democrats and Ted Kennedy, then he goes back into his mode.

I think the most fascinating development is the glimpse we got into his Reggie Van Gleason lifestyle. I mean, with the ABC report about the investigation and the money laundering.

KURTZ: Just to clarify, the report is that he, a number of times, took out from a bank in New York less -- just less than $10,000...

WOLCOTT: And apparently over a number of years it adds up to $300,000 or $400,000, which he said was for gratuities and travel and paying off the contractors. I mean, you know, it sounds like he's throwing out thousand-dollar tips to the bellhop. That's a very interesting development, and that blows up the -- you know, the mode of Rush's personal saga, that it's all about him beating drugs. Now we know.

KURTZ: Well, we obviously knew he was wealthy.

Jonah Goldberg, if some liberal was revealed was a pill-popping addict, Limbaugh and some of your conservative friends would eat him for lunch. So why aren't liberals savaging Rush?

GOLDBERG: Well, I think liberals are savaging Rush. I mean...


KURTZ: They're saying, we, of course, have great sympathy for his personal plight.

GOLDBERG: I haven't seen that much sympathy out there. If you read a lot of stuff on the Web, there are a lot of people having just a grand old time with Rush. And I think one of the interesting things is that people have to hinge their arguments entirely on this hypocrisy thing, as if Rush's transgression or crime was the hypocrisy rather than the drug use, whether it's illegal or not. And what he did -- and because the media will not condemn personal behavior, they have to go with him saying one thing as if he would have been much better off if had just said everyone should use drugs, and then he could use drugs too.

KURTZ: Well, he made the case that, you know, just because he didn't uphold the highest standards, as he didn't in this case, doesn't undercut the power of his message.

Where do you come down on this hypocrisy question, James Wolcott? Is that going to be a continuing problem?

WOLCOTT: Well, it's clearly great hypocrisy in that it reminds me of William Bennett, who condemned every vice except the one he was practicing, which was gambling. And so it -- I'm all for going after him on the hypocrisy issue simply because they come on so judgmental, so lordly in their verdicts on other people.

You know, if he had been humble about this at the beginning, I mean, no one would have cared if we though, oh, well, he takes a drink, he, you know -- but it's the scale of the pill-popping that is staggering and fascinating.

GOLDBERG: Well, as a matter of fact, I think Rush Limbaugh was actually quite humble when he actually gave his statement in the beginning.

KURTZ: Got to go.


KURTZ: Got to go. Jonah Goldberg, James Wolcott, thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

Up next, we'll go behind the headlines for President Bush's not so excellent adventure with the British press.

And more at the top of the hour on the turmoil in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Stay with us.


KURTZ: Time now to go behind the headlines of President Bush's trip across the Atlantic.


KURTZ (voice-over): President Bush may not have much patience for dealing with American reporters.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The second question is a trick question. So I won't answer it.

KURTZ: But they must seem like boy scouts and brownies after his close encounter with the British press, one of whose members actually infiltrated Buckingham Palace just to brag to the world that he could have shot the president or served him tea and crumpets.

The stunt by "The Daily Mirror," whose tabloid sleuth impersonated one of the royal footmen -- what is a footman, anyway -- was typical of the rude and crude greeting that Bush got in London. Headlines warned of a redneck alert. When the Brits beefed up security, he was lampooned as Chicken George. Even in person, London reporters showed zero deference.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is your conclusion. Why do they hate you in such numbers?

BUSH: I don't know that they do.

KURTZ: All this is driven by the widespread British opposition to the war in Iraq and the role of Tony Blair, often dubbed Bush's poodle, in that war, as reflected by an openly partisan media. But Bush's bloody bad welcome went beyond the war to the elite London resentment of his cowboy swagger and "bring 'em on" rhetoric. The president countered with his own strategy, granting an exclusive interview to Rupert Murdoch's tabloid "Sun."


So what if "The Sun" features those pictures of bare-breasted women every day? The paper supported the war, and that made it wholesome reading at the White House.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


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