Off-the-wall idea?

Media pay to play in Jackson trial

For the celebrity media, the trial of Michael Jackson on child molestation charges promises to be a ratings bonanza, ending a months-long dry spell for courtroom drama.

But for the tiny hamlet of Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County, Calif., where the trial takes place, the media horde could rep a serious drain on the municipal coffers.

So the city is following the lead of San Mateo County, which hosted the Scott Peterson trial, levying fees on the 1,100 or so journalists that have requested credentials.

“They have certain First Amendment rights — it’s their duty, it’s their job — but to the extent they create an impact on public property that costs the county money,” says Bob Nisbet, county capital projects manager.

The city hopes to collect $7,500 a day from the fees, over what most believe will be a six-month trial.

But the media orgs setting up shop in Santa Maria are spending a whole lot more as they lay siege to the tiny courthouse complex made up of a block of one-story buildings and surrounding bungalows housing law offices.

NBC rented an overgrown lot next to one office and erected a $20,000 platform overlooking the courthouse. ABC jackhammered and then re-paved a street to accommodate cables to their set.

“Under the city’s guidance,” a ABC spokeswoman clarified.

CourtTV, Fox News, and CBS snapped up 27 city parking spaces for a tent city.

A local TV crew bartered ad time for the use of a law firm’s roof.

“This court has a very small footprint and you’re trying to fit the world’s press into it, on top of it, and around it,” says CBS West Coast Bureau Chief Jennifer Siebens. “It’s not a pretty picture.”

None of them was willing to say how much they had budgeted to cover the trial.

For the very serious news organizations covering the trial — and the not-so-serious — the idea that a municipality would charge for access to a public proceeding feels like a cold slap in the face, and a possible First Amendment violation.

But as celebrity jurisprudence becomes a staple of the 24-hour news cycle, pay-to-play is going to become standard fare, especially when small communities host the circus.

News organizations, owned by large, cost-conscious conglomerates, say they try to convey the fact that they aren’t ATMs, even as they spend thousands on their own infrastructure.

“At some point, if the fee is exorbitant, it’s infringing on the right of the press to be at a public proceeding,” says Doug Jacobs, general counsel of Court TV.

San Mateo County raised tens of thousands from the media during the Scott Peterson trial, including $60,000 for the use of an overflow listening room and $550 a month for parking for TV crews.

Days after jury selection began, confusion still reigns over who will have to pay and how much. Some outlets say they haven’t been asked to pay anything at all. Most believe this will be every bit as big as the Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson cases.

“The fact that there’s no cameras allowed in the courtroom means it’s not going to have the visual impact of an O.J. (Simpson) trial,” says Charles Lachman, exec producer of “Inside Edition.” “But it is Michael Jackson so it’s still going to be big,”

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