Networks embrace Paris

Socialite jailbird inspires 24-hour coverage

On Friday morning, “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer drew audible laughter from the gallery when he asked Dan Abrams, NBC’s chief legal correspondent and general manager of MSNBC, if the cable net planned any coverage of Paris Hilton for the rest of the day.

“Maybe just a little,” Abrams said.

By the end of the day, MSNBC, like news outlets, had turned the plight of miscreant socialite Paris Hilton into a 24-hour obsession.

News, it is often said, is a vacuum that needs to be filled. Friday had plenty of filler with a Pentagon shakeup, the G8 summit and the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis.

But there was little oxygen for those events in the cable news cycle as CNN, Fox and MSNBC all made Hilton their top story. At one point, CNN’s Kyra Phillips called the net “the most trusted name in Paris news.”

The Hilton saga began to take on OJ-like proportions Thursday after county Sheriff Lee Baca released her for an unspecified medical condition, allowing her to serve out the remainder of her sentence

under confinement at her Hollywood Hills home.

However, NBC’s Brian Williams made a point of ignoring Hilton on “Nightly News” on Thursday, writing on his blog, “nobody mentioned Paris Hilton at our afternoon editorial meeting.”

By Friday morning, NBC’s “Today” sensed the floodgates opening and made Hilton its top story.

Her release triggered outcry over a so-called two-tiered justice system, and while some news organizations initially tried to hold out against the pull of Paris-mania, all soon succumbed to its irresistible pull.

“The bar for outrage over celebrity behavior is set pretty high in Hollywood these days, but Paris Hilton’s early release from jail has brought howls of protest and cries of a double standard,” reported

CBS’ Katie Couric on Thursday night, introducing a report by Anthony Mason. ABC’s Charles Gibson also reported on Hilton’s release in a report, “Prison and Privilege.”

By Friday morning, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and ABC News Now all carried live shots from helicopters hovering over Hilton’s Spanish-style manse as she bade her parents farewell and was driven to court by Sheriff’s deputies pursued by throngs of paparazzi.

Inside the courtroom, Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer threw the book at the heiress, ordering her to serve the remainder of her 45-day sentence in a tiny jail cell for violating her probation in a reckless

driving case.

“It’s not right!” she shouted. “Mom,” she called out to her mother Kathy Hilton, in the courtroom.

No cameras were allowed in the courtroom and no one had audio of Hilton’s teary cries, but cable news anchors were willing to improvise, performing their own renditions of the moment.

At times coverage seemed to verge on self-analysis, as cable news anchors openly questioned their own orgs news judgment in dwelling on the story.

“We’re not sure what upsets you more, Paris getting out of jail or the fact that we’re even covering this story,” said CNN anchor Betty Nguyen, reading viewer email. “Sometimes, yes, we scratch our heads

about it, too.”

The cable networks took a brief pause to announce the retirement of Joint Chiefs chairman Peter Pace a little after noon on Friday, but then quickly returned to watch for Hilton to emerge from court.

The nadir of the Hilton circus occurred that afternoon when the networks gave the OJ treatment to her 13-mile drive from the courthouse to prison, all the while analyzing whether justice had been

served.

“There’s a sense of vengeance here that has no bounds,” said Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera. “It’s unseemly. It’s pathetic.”

When NBC’s Williams finally weighed in on Hilton Friday night, he chided the cablers for their news judgment.

“If you were watching television today then you saw it happen: During the Pentagon’s announcement about General Pace was being made, many of the cable news networks broke away from what was judged to be a more urgent breaking story out of Los Angeles,” he said.

“We’re covering it as the appearance of the LA legal system in turmoil,” an NBC News spokesperson said. “We’re not above the news here.”

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