Chihuahuas on Steroids

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For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Tomorrow night, millions of people around the country will flip their TV screens to CNN to watch Larry King's interview with a blonde jailbird who seems to have accomplished nothing except whip the media into a frenzy.

Did you see the dozens of pushing, shoving photographers and cameramen swarming around her vehicle after her release last night?

And the reporters doing solemn stand-ups at the gates of her parents' place, as though describing a summit of world leaders?

Did it strike you that this is what TV journalism has come to, the relentless repetition of nothing?

Although it seems to be a new phenomenon, it isn't.

Guy Farmer, a veteran journalist writing in Sunday's Nevada Appeal, recalled that in 1996 he wrote a column lamenting the proliferation of "celebrity news."

He concluded that the traditional lines separating news and entertainment had been breached by the TV networks in a quest for younger viewers.

Farmer wrote that, of course, the situation is far worse today than it was then, and he gave Dan Rather credit for complaining a couple of weeks ago about the "dumbing down" of the news at CBS, his former employer.

Rather's comment about "tarting up" the news was unfortunate, given that his replacement is Katie Couric, but it was essentially correct, when you consider all the bells and whistles that Couric brought to the program.

Rather explained that he was not being sexist. He was deploring the steady diet of soft, tabloid-type stories involving sexy celebrities like Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton, Farmer wrote.

The Hilton story got a lot of backs up last week when it was reported that NBC News had offered her $1 million for an interview on the Today show. ABC was said to have offered $100,000 for photos and video.

In the ensuing uproar, both networks backed off, citing ethics policies that preclude paying for news.

And yet no one batted an eye when NBC bought the rights to a Princess Diana tribute concert, set to air on Sunday, for $2.5 million. It was no accident that NBC's Matt Lauer landed an interview with Princes William and Harry.

A few days ago, I got a call from a TV producer friend in California who said that, contrary to their public position, networks often pay for news, usually in the form of free flights, hotel rooms, shopping trips and other perks used to entice people to sit down for exclusive interviews.

It happened repeatedly in the trials of Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson, in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant's rape case in Colorado, and in the Anna Nicole Smith and John Mark Karr cases.

ABC, for instance, used a Disney Lear jet to fly several Jackson jurors to New York. During the flight, CBS tracked the plane across the country, hoping to spirit the jurors away once they landed at Teterboro, New Jersey.

My friend the producer said the networks employ highly dedicated "bookers" to snag these interviews, called "gets."

He called the bookers "Chihuahuas on steroids wearing stilettos."

In the Kobe Bryant case, several bookers were given the job of going shopping with the alleged victim's girlfriends, all expenses paid, as a way to get close to them and persuade them to cooperate.

"It's all about the money, it's all about the get," the producer said. "It isn't about the value of what Paris Hilton has to say. It's about the ratings, about getting people to sample the show, and to come back."

"They'll do whatever it takes to book that guest," he said. "This is the raw, horrible underside of news, and a lot of old-timers are really ashamed of this."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images



Nick Madigan