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Chronicle of a Death Unfolds : Media: Tabloid and straight news merged in the reporting of River Phoenix’s collapse and the questions surrounding its circumstances.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the end, you heard his younger brother’s voice more than you did that of the actor himself.

The news shows aired clips of River Phoenix delivering a line or two from his most-known film roles, but it was Joaquin Phoenix’s frantic, plaintive cries to 911 that captured the media’s attention after his brother’s death.

“You must get over here, please; you must get over here, please, " the brother, also known as Leaf, pleaded. And when the dispatcher tried to calm him with “OK. Take it easy, OK?” the brother went on: “Now I’m thinking he had Valium or something, I don’t know . . . .”

In the hours after River Phoenix collapsed in front of the Viper Room at 1:51 a.m. Sunday on “this cold Hollywood sidewalk"--as KNBC-TV Channel 4 told it Monday--came a flood of coverage. Images of flowers, cards and candles; talk of a “shrine,” and a kind of canonization of the 23-year-old as “the James Dean of his time” (KCAL-TV Channel 9) soon emerged. On KCBS-TV Channel 2, Variety columnist Army Archerd was saying, “There hasn’t been anything this catastrophic and dramatic since . . . James Dean, Natalie Wood.”

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Dramatic as it was, Leaf Phoenix’s call was also the hook that gave credence to the near-universal speculation about the possibility of a drug overdose. With the coroner’s office saying autopsy results were inconclusive but that foul play and an underlying heart problem had been ruled out, the recording of the 911 call filled a vacuum.

This was a story where tabloid and straight news merged.

Here was “A Current Affair” playing the entire five-minute 911 call Monday night. And there was the New York Times national edition leading its National Report Tuesday with a story headlined “Death of River Phonix Jolts the Movie Industry” and printing 30 or so lines of the transcript, not unlike the way it would for a weighty Washington news conference.

Here was Channel 9 in its 8 p.m. newscast Monday reporting that “In the dark corners and exclusive clubs” the “latest designer drug” is gamma hydroxybutyric acid, otherwise known as GHB--or Grievous Bodily Harm as it’s known on the scene. “River Phoenix suffered what looked like seizures,” reporter Cindy Vandor noted, " . . . leading to speculation that he may have taken GHB. We have learned the coroner is testing for the presence of GHB.”

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And there was the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday and Wednesday writing about the same drug, a steroid substitute. “ ‘Designer Drug’ Enters Hollywood’s Fast Lane” read the headline atop Wednesday’s Metro section.

Cocaine also got prominent play. The syndicated tabloid “Hard Copy,” which airs here on KNBC, said it had “learned through sources at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center that indeed River Phoenix died of an overdose of Valium and cocaine,” and NBC’s Tom Brokaw reported that “a paramedic on the scene told NBC News that the case appeared to be ‘consistent’ . . . with cocaine overdose.” Earlier, Channel 4’s John Beard had talked about “a mixture of cocaine and Valium.”

In Variety Wednesday, Archerd said he asked Peter Bogdanovich, director of “The Thing Called Love,” Phoenix’s last completed movie, about rumors the actor was on the drug Ecstasy. Archerd quoted Bogdanovich: “He was a wonderful kid. The only thing I ever saw him take was a beer on Saturday night.”

Rush Limbaugh, while declining “to speculate on what the cause of death might be,” was also commenting Tuesday on his radio show: “From the moment his death was discovered, you would have thought the President of the United States has been assassinated here . . . that we’ve lost some great contributor to the social and human condition. This guy--look at his name. River Phoenix. He’s the son of a couple of whacked-out hippies. . . . “

The extensive coverage notwithstanding, it was Phoenix’s fate to share his final spotlight with legendary Italian director Federico Fellini, who died the same day. The New York tabloids played the Phoenix story more prominently, but not as prominently as they might have had not a down-to-the-wire mayoral race been taking place.

On Monday, the three network news shows led with other stories. On CBS and NBC, it was the dispute over Sen. Bob Packwood’s (R-Ore.) diaries; on ABC it was First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s offensive against the ads of health insurance companies.

There appeared to be a trace of displeasure in “Entertainment Tonight’s” John Tesh Monday night as he reported that it will take six to eight weeks before the toxicological reports are in. But the next night it wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing beyond the cataclysmic was going to interrupt Los Angeles TV’s coverage of the apocalyptic burning of Malibu.


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