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Did Media Convict Michael Jackson?; Curbing the Paparazzi

Aired June 19, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Celebrity justice. Was Michael Jackson convicted by the media even before a jury acquitted him of child molestation charges? And did journalists spend way too much time on the tawdry case?

Curbing the paparazzi. Are photographers going too far in chasing down the likes of Lindsay Lohan, causing accidents and inflaming tempers? And are the entertainment media encouraging their reckless behavior? A crackdown in the works.

Plus, did the runaway bride sell a TV interview? And Paris Hilton using the media and being used once again.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the trials, the celebrities and the people who cover them. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Ahead, we'll talk about the growing hoards of photographers known as the paparazzi.

But first, when the Michael Jackson verdict came down as 10 counts of not guilty, at least 14 channels covered the main event live, from the cable and broadcast networks, to MTV, to E! Entertainment Television. And for some anchors, the jury decision was hard to accept.


DAN ABRAMS, HOST, "THE ABRAMS REPORT": This was a shocking verdict to me. What happened?

SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, "HANNITY & COLMES": Just because somebody in this country is found not guilty doesn't mean they're innocent of the charges. And you know that.

NANCY GRACE, HOST, "NANCY GRACE": Many, many people not jubilant tonight. Feeling like if you want to win in an American courtroom, you've got to have a deep pocket and you have to be (INAUDIBLE) a little boy.


KURTZ: NBC's Brian Williams tried to justify covering the story at all.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: While we have tried very hard to limit coverage of the Jackson trial to the most newsworthy days in the proceedings, a great man who used to occupy this chair often said, "We can't be above the news, either."


KURTZ: Joining me now in New York, Bonnie Fuller, chief editorial director of American Media, which includes "Star" magazine and "The National Enquirer." In Los Angeles, "L.A. Times" writer and columnist Patt Morrison. And also in Los Angeles, Jane Velez- Mitchell, correspondent for the syndicated show "Celebrity Justice."


Bonnie Fuller, are the media now treating Michael Jackson as kind of an O.J.-like character, meaning, yes, he beat the rap but we all kind of think he's a child molester?

BONNIE FULLER, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, "STAR" MAGAZINE: I don't think so. I think that the media have been obsessed with this case not just because what has gone on in the courtroom, but also you can't forget the antics outside the courtroom.

I mean, this is a man who came to court on the first day and jumped up on the roof of the car and danced, and then wore uniforms with various medals on several other days. So I mean, the whole thing has been a circus from the start to the finish.

KURTZ: And had some guy holding an umbrella over his head...

FULLER: That's right.

KURTZ: ... even when it was perfectly sunny in California.

Jane Velez-Mitchell, people sometimes forget that juries have to weigh the evidence and decide the prosecution has proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt, but is the attitude of many journalists that you've seen been, you know, this is sort of another case of L.A. justice, he got away with it?

JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, "CELEBRITY JUSTICE": Well, in the court of public opinion, the burden of proof is not beyond a reasonable doubt. So people are weighing in on all sorts of opinions. And of course, when some of the jurors came out and said that they thought he was guilty, but that was just a feeling, and they had to go with the facts, that encouraged people to talk about what they felt Michael Jackson was really guilty of.

Michael Jackson put himself in this position when he said on global television that he liked to do sleepovers with boys. Now, the jury has acquitted him, but people are going to continue to talk. And that's why his attorney, Tom Mesereau, one of the very first things he did was get on television and say, "Michael Jackson is changing his ways. He is going to be a lot more careful about who he allows into his life." And that is something he has to do, or otherwise people are going to continue talking like this.

KURTZ: To which millions of people would say, "About time." Now, the speculation, the orgy of speculation, reached a peak in the half-hour or 45 minutes before the verdict was announced. Let's take a look at what was on the airwaves.


WENDY MURPHY, FORMER PROSECUTOR: It's a little bit too long for an acquittal. It's not quite long enough for a hung jury. I don't think it's quite long enough for an outright acquittal. I think there's no question we're going to see convictions here.

ROBERT SHAPIRO, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: But what I think the jury will do in this case is render a verdict that will not have Michael Jackson singing "Beat It" today. I think he's going to be convicted.


KURTZ: Patt Morrison, what exactly is the point of these legal analysts and commentators going on the air and making predictions about what the jury's going to do, and we're all going to find out a few minutes later afterwards, treating it kind of like a basketball game?

PATT MORRISON, COLUMNIST, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Because I think the dead air has been the greatest sin in American television. Nobody can get away with saying nothing anymore.

One of the differences with this case is because, unlike O.J., we learned years ago from books, movies, and television there's nothing like a good murder mystery yarn. And we had O.J. in our homes and workplaces everyday. That was not the case with the Michael Jackson trial. One network had to resort to a reenactment.

And I think, in the mainstream media, there was some distaste about covering this at all. It should have been on Sundays on the comics pages.

KURTZ: Bonnie Fuller, do you think there was a huge public appetite for this case, as the media seemed to believe, or was it diminished somewhat by what I would call the "ick" factor, I mean, testimony about fondling young boys?

FULLER: It was definitely diminished by the "ick" factor. And it was also diminished by the fatigue factor. I mean, this is not the first time that these accusations have been leveled at Michael Jackson. And I do think that people felt that it was somewhat unseemly to listen to all the details of the case and to encourage, really, the case to be in their homes every day. I mean, if you've got children in your own household, you don't want to keep the TV turned on while those kind of details are being presented on the air.

KURTZ: Exactly. Now, everybody seemed to want to get in on this case. Here's Al Sharpton reacting to the verdict on CNN.


REVEREND AL SHARPTON, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I felt that he was being vilified and in many ways lynched by the media.


KURTZ: "Lynched by the media," Jane Velez-Mitchell? That's a racially charged term, and here's Michael Jackson, who seems like he's spent years trying to look white.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, I think that there was a lot of biased coverage. And frankly, I think it could have all been eliminated if we'd only had cameras in the courtroom. The whole effort to keep cameras out of the courtroom was to keep decorum, to keep this a serious proceeding.

And actually, it had the opposite effect. You had all these people going on television and talking and actually engaging in wild speculation. If there had been cameras in the courtroom, the people of America would have been able to see it and judge for themselves.

And I think that's the message here. That's the lesson to be learned. Put cameras in the courtroom. Let people decide for themselves.

MORRISON: The headline would have been if Al Sharpton had not seen race in this issue.

KURTZ: All right. Now, Michael Jackson just, you know, one of the celebrities who's been dealing with photographers for most of his life. And for many stars, fame also attracts the paparazzi, those photographers who hound and some would say stalk Hollywood's better- known actors, and then sell the images to celebrity magazines.

Paparazzi, of course, helped cause the 1997 death of Princess Diana. And one photographer was recently arrested on suspicion of felony assault with a deadly weapon for crashing his car into the Mercedes of actress Lindsay Lohan. Now Los Angeles County prosecutors are looking at ways to go after photographers who break the law in pursuit of pictures.

Patt Morrison, is this a serious effort, do you believe, by prosecutors? And is it about time?

MORRISON: There's a new breed, I understand, of paparazzi who, in some ways, have been forced out of Europe since the death of Princess Diana. If they can't crack down on the death of the mother of the future king of England, what will it take? Many of those people, I understand, have come to Los Angeles. And they're using almost hunting pack techniques. And I think the district attorney's office is looking at possible conspiracy issues, how they may all get together and decide how to pursue their "prey," quote/unquote.

There are a lot of laws on the books they can use for this conspiracy issues. And the LAPD has for a long time had a celebrity stalker unit, although they certainly don't call it that, looking into cases, for example, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the late-'90s.

Maria Shriver was pregnant. He just had heart surgery. And a couple of photographers pursued them on the way to their child's preschool. These men were convicted of misdemeanors and fines, but now it's become even more dangerous, perhaps, and I think that's why they're ratcheting up the stakes in the prosecution.

KURTZ: It can be a dangerous business.

Bonnie Fuller, let's talk about the market for these pictures. There's the cover of "Star" magazine: "Jessica Simpson: Hotter than Ever." It says "Ten Never-Before-Seen Sexy Body Photos." When you have pictures like that, how much of a boost can it be for newsstand sales?

FULLER: Of course, a great photo of a celebrity, a brand-new photo, and a newsy photo, particularly if the celebrity is in the news, for example, like announcing their engagement, like Tom Cruise did this morning, yes, there is a good market for photos.

KURTZ: Are these very expensive photos? What's the most you've ever paid for a picture of some famous person?

FULLER: The most that we've ever paid is $100,000, and that was a photo taken of Britney Spears with her husband of about -- I think it was 55 hours. That was the first husband that she married in Las Vegas over a year ago.

KURTZ: Now, Jane Velez-Mitchell, you know, we've had these reports of car crashes, and near crashes, and confrontation. Can't we all agree now that paparazzi -- some of them. I don't want to indict all of them -- but some of them are just going to far and endangering the lives of the people they're chasing?

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Oh, absolutely. And I don't think you can just blame them. You have to look at the whole system. As long as people are buying these photographs and looking the other way, they're sort of the co-conspirators here. And I think that these magazines have to get together, and they have to come up with some rules and some standards and say, "We will not buy photos that were obtained in certain ways," just like news organizations have ...


FULLER: Well, you know, "Star" magazine actually does have a policy. We have never bought photos that were obtained in any way that was reckless. And, in fact, in history, our company, American Media, never bought the photos of Princess Diana's car crash, nor did we buy the photos of the Lindsay Lohan incident last week. So we've always had this policy in place.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, that's wonderful, but...


KURTZ: Well, Bonnie Fuller, you do kind of create the market here, because if you and similar publications would say, "We're not going to buy some of the pictures that were taken under questionable circumstances," the photographers wouldn't be able to sell them.

FULLER: Some of our competitors have also come out with policies. You know, I do want to point out a couple of things. First, this is a very -- the group or the person, the individual, who crashed his car into Lindsay Lohan is one individual. And most paparazzi are professionals.

And so I don't think that you can smear the entire group because of one individual. We don't want to smear all celebrities because of what Russell Crowe did last week in hitting a hotel clerk with a television. He's one individual.

KURTZ: Patt Morrison?

MORRISON: It's exactly what happened in Paris with the death of the princess of Wales, that all paparazzi were being tarred by that behavioral brush. And now, if you find someone who has crashed his car into a celebrity vehicle, people are going to start saying, "They must all be like that."

And so it behooves them all, if they're going to stay in business, to retreat from some of these tactics or they're going to be put out of business, perhaps by criminal charges, as the D.A. here has been speaking about.

KURTZ: But Patt Morrison, even short of car crashes, it seems like some of these pictures are staged, in the sense that a photographer gets in your face, you get angry, you react, and then the tamper tantrum that the photographer instigated sort of becomes the story or the picture.

MORRISON: And that becomes the story, that becomes the picture. And all of these incidents are picture-driven. If there weren't pictures, there wouldn't be stories.

And it's not just about the technology being intrusive. It's about whether the paparazzi themselves are intrusive. And this becomes a First Amendment issue, because we don't want to suppress free speech. We want to acknowledge that these celebrities are public figures, and yet once people start pushing the envelope criminally, they put entire First Amendment issues at risk.

KURTZ: Jane Velez-Mitchell, are the paparazzi paying off a lot of people in order to get in position to take these pictures? And is that hard for, sort of, ordinary journalists who don't open the checkbook to compete with?

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Well, this all boils down to the law of supply and demand. And I certainly applaud any magazine that says that they have rules and they won't buy these photos. But somebody's buying them, otherwise they wouldn't go to these great lengths. And I think it needs to be an industry-wide decision, industry-wide standard.

And I absolutely agree. The industry should do it itself. Otherwise, if the laws come in, then it becomes a First Amendment issue.

MORRISON: And the public has to understand that it can't pooh- pooh this conduct, and at the same time, snatch these copies of pictures off the newsstands.

KURTZ: Bonnie Fuller, go ahead.

FULLER: I also, though, I'd like to say that the pictures of celebrities looking angry are not a particularly big market. The kind of pictures that have garnered the highest prices are actually very happy pictures, pictures of couples who are announcing that they're getting married, or engaged, or in the start of the a relationship.

And also, you know, right now, celebrities have really never had such a wonderful time. I mean, they have never had the power that they've had. They have never had the opportunity to earn $20 million paychecks, plus turn their names into brands. If their pictures were not in celebrity news weeklies like "Star," they wouldn't be getting the cosmetic contracts, the fragrance contracts, the hamburger commercials, like Paris Hilton just got.

KURTZ: We'll get to that. But just briefly, Bonnie Fuller, to what extent are you all playing games with the publicists who say, you know, "My celebrity is going to be on the beach at Santa Monica. You can get a picture of Jennifer Aniston, but then maybe you've also got to run a picture of my other client." How much of winking and nodding is going on here?

FULLER: What's happened more is celebrities who have actually staged, what I would call, paparazzi shots. I mean, for example, when Britney Spears first met Kevin Federline, now her husband, she took him to a public beach. And she had a piggy-back ride on his back. They played with a dog. They staged the photos so that the world would know, in fact, that they were a couple.

KURTZ: All right.

FULLER: Then she also is the same person who is filming the start of her relationship and turned it into a reality show. So many of them understand the power of exposing their own personal lives. That will make them money. I mean, look at Nick and Jessica. They are famous for their personal lives.

KURTZ: I need to get a break so I can recover from the shock of this. When we come back, why did runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks sell the rights to a news interview as well as a TV movie? And Mark Felt, better known as Deep Throat, is history worth a $1 million movie deal? Stay with us.



Patt Morrison, America's newest celebrity, Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called runaway bride, and her fiance, John Mason, make a half- million dollar deal with super-agent Judith Regan, not just for a TV movie, but I have the deal memo right here. It says, "$500,000 to be paid after the completion of the first interview with Jennifer Wilbanks and John Mason." They can't give an interview to anyone else.

Now, NBC and Katie Couric say they didn't pay a cent for this, but they are airing a prime-time special on Tuesday. What do you make of this woman selling the rights to an agent to the first TV interview?

MORRISON: Well, I think that she's trying to make money on a bad situation. I don't so much blame her as I blame the network and the book people. This woman was a flash in the pan, and I think it's a shocking waste of public airwaves at a time we've got so much going on in the world that they're going to waste an hour or an half-an-hour on this girl who got cold feet.

I also think it's appalling that Mark Felt, who is a stand-up guy, only gets twice as much as a woman who runs away from her own wedding. I mean, if that million dollars -- we'll get to that. But if that doesn't include the action figure with the trench coat, and the going like, "Shh," in the parking garage, then he got ripped off.

KURTZ: Now, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Patt Morrison says she doesn't blame Jennifer Wilbanks. But look, this is a woman who faked her kidnapping, traumatized her family, sparked this huge, over-the-top media frenzy, pleads guilty, is going to pay back some of the law enforcement costs involved in the search, and now she's going to get rich and get a one-hour NBC special? I sense the potential for a backlash here.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: You know, I have to say -- I'm just going to dare to be different here. I think she may actually have something to say. When I heard about her crazy story, the first thing that flashed through my mind is, "This is what happens with the societal pressure to have these huge weddings. This is the kind of fallout from this constant drumbeat of having these massive weddings."

And I'd be really interested to hear her story of why she got cold feet, and did what she did.

KURTZ: Now, hold on. Hold on. Hold on. She skipped out on her wedding. I'm sure that's been done before in human history.


KURTZ: But she lied. She said she was abducted by two Hispanic men. And now she's been rewarded.

VELEZ-MITCHELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm not condoning her behavior. I'm trying to understand why, to see if we can all, perhaps, as a society, learn something from it. I've read many articles about young couples poisoning their marriages by starting off hugely in debt because of these massive weddings that they are under this pressure to have from their families and their peers.

And I'm just saying, yes, it's sad that she's making so much money. But maybe there's important information in there that needs to be disseminated to the public so we could all learn something from her experience.

KURTZ: Bonnie Fuller, let me try to move to higher ground here. Tom Hanks makes a million-dollar deal with the family of Mark Felt, also known as Deep Throat, movie and a book deal. Now, I don't blame him one bit. He's a 91-year-old man who did what he did, controversial as it was 30 years ago. But can he really write this book? And is there a public appetite for another Watergate movie?

FULLER: I think there's absolutely a public appetite to really hear it from the source. I mean, this is going to be fascinating. We've known about this case. It's part of American history in a huge way. In fact, it very much changed the way a lot of Americans viewed their government. I think it introduced a much more cynical viewpoint of government after the Watergate scandal.

And so, yes, I think that there will be a huge interest in hearing why Mark Felt did it straight from the horse's mouth. I'm sure that he -- well, I've heard that he took notes. And I can hardly wait to hear it myself.

KURTZ: Well, I'll look forward to seeing 91-year-old Mark Felt on the cover of "Star" magazine, although something tells me you may go with Tom Hanks.

Bonnie Fuller, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Patt Morrison, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, behind the headlines with Paris Hilton, and the press, and that TV ad.


KURTZ: "Newsweek" reports this week that Paris Hilton is giving up public life. Sure, of course. The woman whose main talent seems to be for exposing herself, who stars in a reality show, whose sex tape bounced around the Internet, who just got engaged to a Greek guy named Paris, is quietly going to fade away?

Well, guess what? She won't do it. You heard it here first. And the media won't let her do it. Just look at what television did with her car-washing commercial. We're going to show you three seconds of the ad for Carl's Jr. hamburgers just so you'll know what we're talking about.

OK, that's enough. Well, anchors or producers were all too happy to play the commercial every time they talked about.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a new Paris Hilton commercial sparking a firestorm. Some conservative groups saying it's just too hot for TV.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does this make you want to buy a hamburger?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: She's performing this particular bump-and-grind to get you to buy some Carl's Jr. burgers. And by you, we mean men 18 to 34.


KURTZ: Others fulminated about the commercial even as they kept talking about it.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS HOST: Mr. and Mrs. America, and four little kids screaming for a little burger and fries. Now, they're going to see this and they're going to go...


O'REILLY: They're going to go, "What?"


KURTZ: But then last week, O'Reilly had on the CEO of Carl's Jr. and asked him for help in booking Hilton herself. Nothing but ratings.

But the media better get in on the action now, because "Newsweek" says Paris Hilton is retiring in about two years, and then we'll never hear about her again, right? Don't bet on it.

Just ahead, your viewer e-mail about the Bush administration and the press on that controversial Downing Street Memo.


KURTZ: Lots of heated viewer e-mail from our discussion last week about whether the media had gone soft on the Bush administration. And about a subject that six weeks later is finally getting some traction in the press this week -- the limited coverage of a British memo of a meeting involving Prime Minister Tony Blair back in the summer of 2002, which said the U.S. had "fixed" the intelligence on Iraq to justify going to war.

Nancy in Hudson, New Hampshire writes: "Please, please, please, the media need to start playing hardball with this administration. The Downing Street memo needs to be revisited and explained for us. The media are our only hope in exposing the way this administration and Congress are corrupting the Constitution."

But Jim in Fayetteville, Georgia says: "These so-called journalists who want to create a story out of the Downing Street memo are the reason we Americans don't trust the media anymore. There is nothing in that memo, and we are tired of being conned by the media so they can further their liberal agendas."

Well, that's it for this edition of "RELIABLE SOURCES." I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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