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Cable News Is Wilder Than E!

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Times Staff Writer

There are two ways to watch the Michael Jackson trial on television: on cable news, with its parade of in-studio lawyer-pundits and reporters stationed outside the courtroom, or on E! Entertainment Television, which is doing nightly dramatic reenactments of the day’s testimony.

Both views are distorted, by definition, but I wonder if it will be the entertainment channel’s coverage, oddly, that ends up being the drier alternative. Yes, E!'s “The Michael Jackson Trial” is low-down, low-rent and prurient (actors portraying minors testifying about sexual contact).

But when Jackson failed to show up in court and then arrived, hours later and under the threat of jail time, in his pajamas, the reality show mentality kicked into hyperdrive on the news networks. “If you’re just joining us, welcome to Jacko’s pajama party,” Court TV’s Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom said, hardly able to contain her glee. CNN dubbed it “Jackson Trial Chaos” and then changed it to “Jackson in a Jam.” Which I guess is short for jammies.

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It was, you instantly knew, a perp walk you were going to see in an endless loop all day for who knows how long -- a Bed, Bath & Beyond version of the O.J. Simpson slow-speed chase: Jackson in those blue pajama bottoms, white socks and slippers, walking into court gingerly, supposedly with horrible back pain, his strange visage sheltered by that omnipresent umbrella.

Numerous commentators instantly referred to him as “disheveled,” which didn’t seem right for someone who’s had so much plastic surgery. In fact, I don’t even think those pajama bottoms would be out of line in certain L.A. restaurants.

Of course, this was a courtroom, and it happened to be the day Jackson’s accuser was to detail the ways in which the defendant allegedly molested him.

On Court TV, where fame was proving to be a fickle mistress for Robert Blake (he only got a clock at the top of the screen, counting up the minutes the jury was deliberating its verdict in his criminal trial), the haughty, overdressed TV lawyer Nancy Grace was interviewing someone -- now this was rich -- about the nine criteria for narcissism. “Grandiose sense of self-importance,” was one. “Is named Nancy Grace” didn’t come up.

The pajamas threatened to overwhelm the real news of the day -- the testimony from Jackson’s accuser. For the cable news sensationalists, it was an embarrassment of riches. What to do -- show Jackson’s outfit again or parse the meaning of “Jesus juice”?

I also saw tape of a TV interview in which Judge Rodney S. Melville discussed his alcoholism openly. It was compelling and real, but it only added to the effect that the Jackson trial was exploding into the surreal, or the post-surreal.

The networks covered the testimony, but they couldn’t resist the pajamas. “My sense is the jury didn’t know much of what was going on,” CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin told Paula Zahn at the end of the day, about all the hullabaloo.

Zahn also spoke to Raymone Bain, described as a Jackson spokesperson and one of the few people all day to get airtime in Jackson’s defense. Even just raw video can convict him as a freak show, so it’s easy to forget that you weren’t seeing anyone speaking on his behalf. Not that Bain offered much.

“All of this was just, nothing was planned,” she said.

Uh huh. Last night on E!, “The Michael Jackson Trial” resumed. No pajamas, and I wasn’t buying it.

Because of the sensational nature of the day’s testimony, E! went an hour with the show.

I found it weirdly boring, whereas I could at least find the news coverage fleetingly gripping.

As train-wreck television, “The Michael Jackson Trial” doesn’t even make it to the accident.


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