News Article

Crime-Time TV

Celebrity trials are big business, so the networks are jumping on the stories earlier than ever.

Less than 24 hours before Michael Jackson was to be arraigned on child-molestation charges, Access Hollywood broadcast a scoop: the exact route that Jackson would travel to go to the Santa Maria courtroom proceedings (''past these lush, rolling hills...to the busy 101 North'').

Days before Kobe Bryant's arraignment on rape charges in a Colorado courtroom, Extra broke the news that he had bought his wife... an eight-carat pink diamond ring.

And months before Scott Peterson's arrest on charges that he'd murdered his wife and unborn son, MSNBC's Dan Abrams discussed the effect that Scott Peterson's affair with Amber Frey would have on the case.

Unlike the heady days of the O.J. Simpson spectacle, 24/7 TV coverage now starts long before the trial, before the preliminary hearing, before the arraignment, and -- in the cases of Jackson, Bryant, Peterson, Martha Stewart, Robert Blake, and Phil Spector -- even before the actual arrest. ''People always want to know about celebrity cases,'' says criminal attorney Harland Braun. ''The pressure on the news media to cover these stories is enormous.''

There was a time when a celebrity criminal defendant had to go on the lam or actually have a trial to draw blanket coverage; a defense attorney could exercise some control over how the media covered the case merely by invoking that whole ''innocent until proven guilty'' thing. But that was back before cable and the networks discovered that the mere possibility of a celebrity arrest is enough to garner big ratings and, in turn, make their reporters stars (see ''The Jackson 5'' at right).

Using blanket coverage before a trial begins, the media can drive the agenda. Weeks before Jackson was arraigned, his year-old televised admission of sleeping in the same bed with children was aired repeatedly, along with shots of the so-called ''secret bedroom'' where Jackson allegedly took his young guests. ''There are a lot of questions that don't get asked that you have to wonder about,'' says attorney Howard Weitzman, who represented Jackson in his 1993 settlement. ''The media in the Jackson case leaned towards branding him a pedophile because he admitted that he slept in the same bed with children...[but] there are few questions about why [a pedophile] would go on TV and admit to having sleepovers with young children.''

These days, while defense attorneys may provide the occasional exclusive (witness ABC's legal analyst Cynthia McFadden's pre -- gag order interview with Jackson attorney Mark Geragos), they're often rendered superfluous: When Geragos, in his role as Scott Peterson's attorney, posited that Laci Peterson was murdered by a satanic cult, the media dismissed the theory and went back to covering Peterson's affair with Frey. ''One of these cases becomes the narrative of the day and the whole thing becomes a cottage industry,'' says PR crisis manager Dan Klores. ''It sells more advertising. It sells experts.''

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