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1993 Year in Review : UNREALITY : Where Entertainment and Reality Collided

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Flashback.

After Joey Buttafuoco claimed he never slept with Amy Fisher, his loose tongue during a TV interview brings him serious trouble, indirectly leading to a guilty plea that sent him to prison for statutory rape.

Let’s see, now, the interview was on “A Current Affair.” No, no, it was NBC’s “Today.” Or was it “Arsenio”? ABC’s “Nightline”? If not Ted Koppel, maybe Dan Rather? Larry King? Surely not Barbara Walters.

Actually, that wonderful lug Joey was in the company of Phil Donahue when, in effect, he blabbed himself into a jail term in front of millions of TV viewers.

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Pardon the confusion, but 1993 had a way of muddling things.

It was a year that magnified the blurring of lines that traditionally had separated components of television. Who was on first? You couldn’t blame viewers for being disoriented, for the “trash” press and the “legitimate” press increasingly covered the same tabloid-style stories, rendering the labels almost meaningless.

Those media brats, the tabloid talk and magazine series, were doing what they always did. But by falling in behind them in this tabloid parade, the so-called respectable media were not only squandering themselves on relative minutiae but also diverting the public’s eye from the truly significant issues of the day.

Who topped the shish kebab of personalities that attracted attention from so many elements of the media?

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Well, Lyle and Erik Menendez were right there. The brothers’ trial, for the shotgun slayings of their parents, crept on for five months, giving local media ample time to show their stuff. That included one TV reporter shrewdly asking a court observer if, based on watching the jurors during closing arguments, he thought there would be a hung jury. Why not go all the way and predict the exact vote?

On a grander scale, moreover, wasn’t it the celebrated Diane Sawyer who devoted an hour in mid-December to breathlessly reprising the trial, stratagem by stratagem, on ABC? And wasn’t it the Fox magazine show “Front Page” that added its own Menendez hour hosted by Ron Reagan a few days later?

Even more prominent in the media eye at times was alleged Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, whose press-mobbed maiden court appearance in August became the bra shot seen around the world. With four camera crews at her arraignment, CNN must have been expecting Fleiss to burn her bra. The talk shows buzzed for weeks.

And how about Kelly Lange getting an “exclusive” interview with Fleiss inside her home near the end of the November ratings sweeps, and talking with her mother too? Boasting of a scoop, KNBC-TV Channel 4 turned those schmoozers Kelly and Heidi into a multi-part series at 11 p.m., becoming only the third news organization to “exclusively” interview Fleiss in her home.

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A very hot ticket, indeed. Yet it wasn’t Heidi, Erik, Lyle or Joey who headed the media spike in 1993. It was--there should be absolutely no suspense--Michael.

A seminal moment in 1993’s incestuous media process came in August when “CBS This Morning” co-host Paula Zahn conducted an interview about those widely reported sexual abuse allegations that a 13-year-old boy had made against Jackson.

The person she interviewed was Diane Dimond.

Diane Dimond of the syndicated “Hard Copy.”

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“Hard Copy” the notorious tabloid series.

Zahn was respectful, if not reverential. Had Dimond heard of other boys being involved? Had she heard of the existence of incriminating photos? CBS News had joined the Inquiring Minds wanting to know. “Hard Copy” was working on those angles,

Dimond disclosed.

CBS News and the extraterrestrial “Hard Copy” merging on coverage of Michael Jackson? It was an exotic hybrid that probably sent Edward R. Murrow spinning in his grave.

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The media were doing plenty of their own spinning, which included tabloid and local news choppers spending enough time above Jackson’s various residences in Southern California to earn frequent-flier mileage. And late in the year--after he had aborted his world tour because of a reported prescription drug problem--came the Search for Michael. The search for the Loch Ness Monster was less intense.

Where was he doing his rehab? In Switzerland? In Oz? Inquiring Quacks just had to know. They included Channel 4, whose own peeping Michael Watcher checked in nightly from his gaga post in London and even read headlines from the tabloids. How big was this story? So big that on the evening of the crucial NAFTA vote in Congress, Channel 4 topped its major newscast with 15 minutes of Michael Jackson.

Trade barriers were about to fall; news standards had already fallen.

Whether Jackson is guilty or not guilty of sexual molestation is not the point. How the media have covered his story is.

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Anyone with a damning tale to tell about him, even if unsubstantiated, has been assured of air time somewhere. Heading the group was a man who insisted he had been Jackson’s “friend.” Negative statements made about Jackson by his estranged sister LaToya continued to get wide play even after she admitted on “Today” that she could not substantiate her innuendo about her brother molesting young boys.

A former Jackson housekeeper and four of his ex-security guards made damaging statements to “Hard Copy” in recent interviews that the tabloid program paid them for. Paying for interviews is odious enough, a sure way to encourage interviewees to do the bidding of the payer and give a performance. Omitting mention of that payment compounds the sin. And that is exactly what several stations did in excerpting the “Hard Copy” remarks of some of Jackson’s former employees.

As much of the media appeared to merge into a paparazzi -like monolith, there was one positive side to the Michael Jackson coverage in 1993. At least no one implied that he was associated with Heidi Fleiss. Or that he was Heidi Fleiss.

But “Hard Copy” may be working on it.

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