When O.J. Simpson threw a post-verdict bash at his Brentwood mansion Tuesday night, the guest list included family, friends, attorneys--and at least one photographer.
To most, the affair was free. But not to Star magazine, which clinched a deal with Simpson's representatives even before the verdict was known to pay a six-figure sum for the celebration party pictures. The supermarket tabloid plans to publish the photos in Monday's issue.
Star's archrival, the Globe newspaper, says it was offered the opportunity to buy the celebration pictures two weeks before the trial ended. But Globe decided to pursue a different scoop and last week published gruesome pictures of the crime victims.
Although the controversial verdicts have divided America, tabloid journalists are united: The Simpson murder case has become the biggest tabloid story ever, surpassing Elvis, Jackie and even the British royal family.
And this week has seen an unsurpassed frenzy of interview- and access-buying by agents of the newspapers and television programs competing for the scoop. Cash offers of $30,000 and more rained on South-Central Los Angeles and elsewhere this week as editors and producers frantically sought exclusives with Simpson jurors.
"It's the sustained level of interest in a single story that sets this [case] apart," said Everette Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University.
"A $100,000 fee for a single interview has not been uncommon in the past, but what you haven't seen until now is an initial fee beginning a chain of fees and activities," Dennis added. "This is like a very complex interactive soap opera, and we have several months of it left."
Analysts say the Simpson trial has made the tabloid media stronger than ever, in terms of not only audience share but also critical respect.
TV shows like "Hard Copy" and "Entertainment Tonight" reaped ratings bonanzas with this week's Simpson coverage. In the six months after the June, 1994, murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, Star's already staggering 2.6-million circulation jumped 10%.
Critics have for years scoffed at such reporting practices as "checkbook journalism." The Los Angeles Times and other mainstream news organizations have strict rules prohibiting any payments to get news sources to talk.
But for perhaps the first time, tabloids are landing scoops that not only beat the mainstream media, according to some critics, but also help inform public debate and even affect judicial proceedings involving a matter of national interest.
The National Enquirer--once perhaps best known as a defendant in celebrity libel cases--won plaudits for breaking stories about Simpson's purchase of a knife shortly before the murders and his alleged history of stalking.
What most abetted this tabloid breakthrough is the nature of the Simpson saga itself.
"Next week we'll have people crying for O.J. relief," predicted National Enquirer Executive Editor Steve Coz. "But this story has everything: It's America, it's Hollywood, a big celebrity, a double murder, sex, children, indications of drugs. It's got it all."
Many of the tabloid TV shows are controlled by large entertainment companies. This may lead to unwelcome synergy when the topic du jour is movie or TV star peccadilloes. "Hard Copy" and "Extra," for instance, are distributed by Paramount and Warner Bros., respectively.
But the corporate backing has helped give producers and reporters deep pockets when pursuing hot leads and exclusive interviews. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the Simpson case.
For example, shortly after the murders, when he was identified as the chauffeur who drove Simpson to Los Angeles International Airport, Allan Park fielded numerous requests for paid interviews. He turned them all down, he said, including an offer of $60,000 to sell his story to "A Current Affair."
"I didn't feel it was right to make yourself substantial sums of money off two people's deaths," he explained in a recent interview. "I don't want to be discredited . . . like so many others."
Fiercely competing for market share, the tabloid shows have expended huge effort in recent weeks scrambling for interviews, although producers of those programs say they can't beat their supermarket brethren when it comes to payments.
"They have so much more money than we do and so many more reporters," lamented one television producer.
Several shows claimed they had policies against paying for interviews, though most industry executives said payments are camouflaged through gifts such as airline tickets and hotel stays.
Or they may be disguised by calling sources by another name. "Extra" says it does not pay for interviews, but it hired Faye Resnick, a friend of Nicole Simpson, as a consultant to help shape coverage after the verdict this week.
The role of tabloids in the case is so pervasive that potential news sources quickly become savvy about their money-making possibilities.
"Inside Edition" said it had sent letters to jurors in advance of the verdict requesting that they appear on the show, but invited none of them on the show because those who responded demanded money. One source said the program was approached by a group of jurors demanding $100,000.
"It's crazy," said one TV producer. "The value of their accounts is diminished by the speed of the verdict. It might be worth that price if there had been a long and drawn-out deliberation."
Another reason the tabloid media might not be so willing to pay: One television producer said the Los Angeles County district attorney's office had sent a letter to the show calling attention to a new state law that makes it a crime for jurors to be paid for selling their stories until 90 days after a trial has concluded.
Despite the tabloid frenzy, there has been no confirmation that any juror has been paid for interviews. However, money's not the only currency. One juror received a flower arrangement from Time magazine, a canvas briefcase from NBC, a gift bag from People and a telegram from Oprah. Several jurors nonetheless have appeared on TV or agreed to newspaper interviews for free.
Juror Gina Rossborough was interviewed on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which does not pay guests. And Sheila Woods gave her first interview Friday night as the sole guest on ABC's "Nightline."
Jurors could not be reached for comment for this report.
Ironically, many shows have paid for interviews on the rationale that the juiciest tidbits will drive up ratings, which suffered as cable shows such as Cable News Network and Court TV drew audiences with their coverage of the trial. "The frenetic search for audience in a medium that no longer delivers mass audiences has just ratcheted up the level of craziness," said Dennis.
Even so, the craziness can both yield news--and make it.
Phil Bunton, editor-in-chief of Star, said the tabloid approached Simpson representatives the night before the verdict about securing photos of the celebration party--assuming, of course, that one would take place. He denied rumors that the magazine had paid $1 million for the pictures but declined to comment further. Simpson's attorney Leroy (Skip) Taft did not return calls on Friday.
"Now that O.J. is free, [the story] can last much longer," Bunton said. "If O.J. had gone to jail, that would have pretty much ended it. But now that he's back in the real world, O.J. will be a major celebrity the rest of his life. His every move will be followed by the paparazzi."
Collins is a Times correspondent. Staff writers Leslie Berger, Greg Krikorian and Jane Hall contributed to this story.