The PBS documentary series Frontline takes a refreshing dip into journalism's cesspool with Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Scandal. If the idea behind this hour is high-minded and despairing -- to explore the question, as correspondent Richard Ben Cramer puts it, of ''What does it cost us when all news is entertainment?'' -- the results are enlightening and exhilarating. Rather than focus on Jackson's child-molestation case, Tabloid Truth follows the rumormongering reporters covering the story, from Hard Copy's Diane Dimond to what Cramer calls ''the Fleet Street hacks, who are hungrier, faster, more relentless than anything homegrown in America.''
Producer Thomas Lennon (The Choice '92) permits the tabloids to hang themselves (a National Enquirer editor says blithely, ''We practice a form of checkbook journalism, but so does everyone else in this business''), but what also comes across is just how hard these people work, how smart and resourceful so many of them are. Cramer's question about the cost of news-as-entertainment might more seriously be asked of network news organizations, which frequently just do more timid versions of what the tabs are bolder about. The Jackson scandal may not be, as a journalist for the British Sun says here, ''the story of the decade,'' but it has at least inspired an excellent documentary about how the story was spread. A-