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Opinion

For cheesy, breezy news, you can’t beat it

Bronwyn Lance Chester The Virginian-Pilot

A nyone who doesn’t enjoy the legal freak show of celebrities in court should put down the remote and take cover.

Michael Jackson’s molestation trial, which began this week, promises to be a lurid doozy that will dominate the airwaves in the coming months.

Steel yourself, America: Another long national nightmare is about to commence.

Already breathless “special correspondents” are busy turning the respective attorneys into stars, a la Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran, in yet another “Trial of the Century” (how many of these can we possibly have?).

The legal-punditry establishment is revving up, too, ready for its close-ups on “Larry King Live,” “Paula Zahn Now,” the E! Networks, Court TV and any other outlet that solicits views on whether the King of Baby Danglers really groped young boys or was set up by a money-grubbing, breast-augmented mother.

I had forgotten that Jackson’s trial started this week. My memory was certainly refreshed as I channel-surfed for the day’s top stories.

When Zahn warned that her coming segment on Jackson was graphic and to “send the kids out of the room,” it was like a red rag to a bull. You bet I stayed tuned.

Not to be outdone, E! hosted a re-enactment of the courtroom action, complete with Jacko doppelganger.

The more I station-hopped, the more I became convinced that Jackson was the top story. Wait, I thought Iran was trying to get nukes and Lebanon’s government just fell.

Want to know what’s happening in Iraq? Or with the plummeting dollar? Genocide in Sudan, maybe? Forget it. The world has, apparently, stopped as the Gloved One faces the music.

Even as I write this, an e-mail “story alert” from a news organization has interrupted my work to tell me Jackson’s defense will focus on a lack of DNA evidence.

Why is America so obsessed with celebrity trials?

Admittedly, such sensationalism isn’t new. From the murder case of silent film star Fatty Arbuckle to Errol Flynn’s rape trial to O.J., Martha, Kobe and now Michael, America has been riveted by luminaries’ legal woes. It’s the ultimate in reality TV.

What is new, however, is the amount of time, ink and breath that celebrity trials capture. If nature abhors a vacuum, so do cable TV and the Internet, which must be fed 24/7.

And if we don’t have a star in legal turmoil at any given moment, we create a new one. We — the press and the public — have managed to turn ordinary folks like JonBenet, Chandra, Laci and Scott into one-word household names, on par with Madonna or Cher.

Let’s face it: Celebrities in trouble make the rest of us feel good about ourselves. We love to believe that, despite the riches and good looks, there’s something sordid and unworthy behind that success.

The courtroom humanizes these larger-than-life figures, a task made increasingly difficult in Jackson’s case by his penchant for plastic surgery.

OK, it’s entertaining. But is it news? “Sure,” said Wally Dean, senior associate with the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “But is it news all the time? I’m not so sure.”

Yes, it’s the perfect painless-on-the-tired-mind combination of stardom, weirdness and forbidden sex.

But “you cannot ignore the fact that this is a cheap, easy `get’ that doesn’t involve a lot of thinking or energy to cover, other than observing the legal process,” said Dean.

Cable TV, with its aim for a niche audience, will continue its hyperventilating reports on Jacko’s case. According to Dean, the real test of its newsworthiness will be how the networks cover it.

Until the blessed day this trial ends, however, don’t expect real news to top the King of Pop.

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