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Frontline Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Scandal

Correspondent: Richard Ben Cramer.

Correspondent: Richard Ben Cramer.

This is terrifying television — terrifying for what it shows of the press, and terrifying in whatit says about the direction of our national character. The sad truth about “Tabloid Truth” is that it doesn’t need a screaming headline to make its point.

America, of late, seems to divide itself into two camps: Those who hide behind their non-constitutionally guaranteed right to claim victimhood, and those who hide behind the First Amendment to exploit them. There is something inherently frightening and askew on either side of that equation.

Using the Michael Jackson tempest and the media ill wind that blew from it as a laboratory, “Frontline” examines the current state of journalism — or what passes for journalism — in the jugular vein. It is not a pretty picture. What image of a slaughter is?

What is so fascinating here is how irrelevant Jackson and all the swirling charges of child abuse seem in the face of the press-card-carrying sharks when they first catch a whiff of blood in the water. By simply following the way the tabs — both electronic and print — followed the story, “Frontline” shows how blurred the lines between sensationalism and truth and news and entertainment have become.

Network news outlets, just to compete on high-profile, continuing stories — witness the coverage of Jackson, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, the Bobbitts, Heidi Fleiss, and Amy Fisher — are hiring tabloid veterans to produce segments; the accent is on splash, and the facts a bit murky.

Sources are paid for information — any information that can be spun into a scoop — which puts a bounty on the head of truth. And you can’t tell your Diane Sawyers from your Diane Dimonds without a scorecard.

It is tabloid princess Dimond, of “Hard Copy,” who, unwittingly, puts so much about the popular media into perspective with a single observation on the Jackson stampede: “It was either gonna be a superstar being falsely accused, or it was gonna be a superstar perhaps guilty of one of the most heinous crimes we know. Either way, I couldn’t lose.”

Not Jackson. Not the kid. Not the public. Not the truth. But Dimond herself. In a post-Watergate world, the press has fallen in love with its power and, drunk on its collective ego, too often loses sight of its franchise and purpose.

In the end, you come away from this surreal hour with one overriding insight: If all the energy, talent, ambition and enterprise that went into sniffing the Jackson trail for the last half-year were channeled into, say, solving the budget crisis, America’s bottom line would be in the black by the weekend. Instead, we’re left with dirty hands and red faces.

Frontline Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Scandal

(Tues. (15), 9-10 p.m., PBS)

Production: Filmed by Frontline. Producer, Thomas Lennon; writers, Richard Ben Cramer, Lennon.

Crew: Editor, Ken Eluto.

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