Hurry, hurry, get a ticket to the news

Watching the news media pitch its most elaborate tents around accused child molester Michael Jackson, it's hard not to dismiss the whole thing with a weary quip: The circus is back in town.

The problem is that, nowadays, the circus never leaves. The media's insatiable appetite for sensational trials -- particularly those with celebrity defendants -- has situated most of its coverage of the criminal justice system on a permanent midway.

Who needs lawyers? Send in the clowns. Why bother with a judge, when what you really need is somebody to play the calliope? Journalists? Naaaw, barkers are what we require, and if they're willing to pull a little sleight of hand on the side, well, so much the better. After all, what it's really all about is getting the suckers into the tent.

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen. We have combed the four corners of the courthouse to bring together this never-before-seen collection of novelties and oddities for your entertainment and edification: See the enigmatic Kobe Bryant, the wretched Scott Peterson, the pretty-weird-even-for-the-music-business Phil Spector and, most of all, the incredibly bizarre Jacko!

Somewhere out there, right now, somebody is preparing to offer for sale a videotape of the whole bunch having group sex with Paris Hilton.

We're now at the bottom of a slippery slope over whose edge we slid on that lamentable day when the decision was made to allow television cameras into the courtroom.

Now it's true -- as the abler defenders of the status quo will argue -- that Americans long have had an unusual preoccupation with courts and trials. In part, that's because, as a pluralistic society, we rely on our judges to settle all sorts of questions that other, more homogenous peoples simply would refer to custom or religion.

It's also true that sensational criminal trials were avidly followed in 19th century America. (It's a melancholy thing to contemplate now, but in 1860 Americans read more newspapers on a per capita basis than anybody else in the world. It didn't keep them from civil war and it didn't check their vulgar fascination with others' misfortune.)

But that situation quantitatively -- and, more important, qualitatively -- changed when we began allowing television cameras into our trial courts. Now, it's also true that Jackson, Bryant, Spector and Peterson are not currently defendants in televised trials. The possibility that they may be has intensified the frenzy now raging across the airwaves and the front pages of our newspapers.

Obviously, Michael Jackson is a major figure in the world's popular culture and his arrest on charges this serious is a major story. As New York Times editor Bill Keller told USA Today's Peter Johnson on Friday, "The fact that he happens to be a staple of the tabloid and gossip columns doesn't mean that when real news happens to him, you sort of exile him to the back pages. I think most major papers realized this is an important story."

But television coverage of the kind now surrounding Jackson is the media equivalent of an imploded star, a black hole whose incredibly powerful gravity draws in everything nearby and deflects the essential light of distinction Keller expressed.

Was Jackson's arrest, booking and release Thursday afternoon really worth the more than two hours of coverage CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and Court TV simultaneously provided? Must every network magazine show shift its focus to Jackson in a week during which the president met with the prime minister of America's closest wartime ally, a week in which international terrorism opened a new front in Turkey, a week in which we moved dauntingly closer to a trade war with both China and the European Community?

Precisely how was the public's "right to know" served by hiring helicopters to shadow and film the progress of Jackson's SUV as it made its way through Las Vegas traffic on his way back to his hotel after his release?

That's not about news. It's about pictures, and here we reach the nub of the matter.

Television likes criminal trials for the same reason it likes sports: There's inherent drama, and it all occurs at a prescribed time in a prescribed place and, therefore, is incredibly cheap to cover. Moreover, unlike sports, you don't even have to pay for the rights. When the argument over televising trials was first being made, those advancing it -- such as Court TV founder Steve Brill -- often alleged that the public would be educated by their coverage.

That was nonsense then and it's still nonsense. If television really was interested in educating its viewers about the criminal justice system, it would fight to televise the proceedings of the appellate courts, where the sophisticated give and take between scholarly advocates and panels of judges is truly enlightening. The last time that happened -- the only time in recent memory, in fact -- the 9th Circuit was conducting its en banc hearing of the California recall case, which, as you might recall, involved Arnold Schwarzenegger's fate.

Most contemporary coverage of the criminal justice system is "educational" in the same way the old stag flicks used to be, when pornographers bent on evading the law had to feign a "redeeming social purpose." So, they just had some guy they called doctor wear a white coat and look into the camera to introduce the fornication that followed.

The cable networks' 24-hour news cycle has made all this infinitely worse by filling their programming with even-cheaper-to-produce chat shows on which a procession of talking heads -- some with credentials, all with opinions -- chew over every conceivable aspect of these trials, introducing into the process every political, social and psychological consideration imaginable. Everything, that is, except the evidence.

Producers and network executives defend such programming simply by saying their viewers want it. Every time we do Laci Peterson or Kobe Bryant or Michael Jackson, they say, our ratings go up. And so they do, but those are the values of an entertainment enterprise and not a news organization.

Watching something like the current Jackson media frenzy build and spread is like the experience the poet Heinrich Heine had when he chanced upon a cat chewing its own tail. In the objective sense, he mused, the beast was eating; in the subjective sense, it was being eaten.

By serving up wall-to-wall coverage of the Jackson/Peterson/Bryant/Spector story, editors and producers may think they are feeding the connection with their readers and viewers. In fact, they are slowly consuming the only things that make that connection worth having -- credibility and respect.

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