Trial and Error? A Roaming Band of Journalists Crisscrosses the Country to Provide Television Coverage of Every Minor Development in Celebrity Court Cases. Is This a Wise Use of Resources and Airtime?

Article excerpt

At 4 a.m. in the January freeze of the Rocky Mountains, producers and hard-luck interns started scraping the snow off the two-story platforms for the camera crews. Soon reporters bundled in parkas scrambled from the warmth of rented mobile homes to shiver in the cold, waiting to report that in just a few hours Kobe Bryant would stroll into the Eagle County Courthouse for another pretrial hearing.

Except this morning there was a problem. An NBC intern staking out the Eagle County airport reported Bryant's arrival in a private plane at 8:30 a.m., right on schedule. But 10 minutes later, no Kobe. For the first time in six months, without warning, he entered the courthouse through a back door, depriving the gathered photographers of the so-called "money shot."

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On this day Bryant's lawyers and prosecutors would debate the admissibility of medical evidence in his sexual assault case behind closed doors. And now the crews who traveled to Eagle from all over the country--many straight from Michael Jackson's appearance in a Santa Barbara County court the week before--wouldn't even get the obligatory footage of Bryant stepping out of an SUV and strolling into the courthouse.

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"My bosses knew that the interesting part of today's hearing would probably be closed," says KTLA reporter Eric Spillman. "But it didn't matter because Kobe is coming."

Until recently, Spillman, a lanky veteran of Los Angeles TV, specialized in covering local stories for the KTLA morning news. But these days he spends a good chunk of his time standing in front of courthouses reporting on the movements of high-profile defendants.

"It seems like all we do these days is cover celebrity trials," Spillman says. His calendar includes trips to cover Jackson and Scott Peterson, facing trial in Northern California for the murder of his pregnant wife, as well as regular trips to Colorado for the Bryant case.

Spillman is part of a wandering troupe of reporters, photographers, producers and pundits who move from celebrated case to celebrated case, setting up small media cities wherever they go. One day reporters will stand on a platform in California talking about an evidentiary hearing in the Peterson case, and the next they'll be planted in the snow in Eagle, discussing rape shield laws.

"They're like a band of gypsies," says Karen Salaz, media liaison for the Colorado state courts. "They go from one event to the next. They all know each other."

These gypsies are working harder than ever. Bryant, Jackson and Peterson are simply the A-list of current judicial events. Throw in Martha Stewart, music producer Phil Spector, ex-NBA player Jayson Williams and assorted financial scandals, and 2004 is shaping up to be the Year of the Celebrity Trial. Columnists and pundits talk of a "perfect storm" of media events, when the trials of Bryant, Jackson and actor Robert Blake converge later this year with the presidential election and the Olympics. That's daunting news for media executives. At a time when many newsrooms are looking to save every dime, trial coverage has developed into one of the largest drains of some newsroom budgets. Local jurisdictions in Northern California may charge media organizations more than $20,000 to cover the Scott Peterson trial. Parking alone was $250 a day for crews covering Michael Jackson's early appearances in court.

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But is the coverage worth the cost? Trial coverage doesn't necessarily translate into higher ratings. And if news crews flock to Eagle, Colorado, those crews won't be available to chase other news.

The Bryant case has proven to be an irresistible blend of celebrity and scandal. Dozens of broadcasters are spending thousands of dollars a day to travel to Eagle, a two-hour drive west from Denver, to report on each new legal development in Bryant's sexual assault case. …