Tuesday, January 15, 2002

Dimond Leads Coverage of Jackson Story

David Bauder (ap)

A few months ago, reporter Diane Dimond told Court TV Chairman Henry Schleiff that she was working on a great story and would need him to commit money and manpower to help dig it out. But even in the privacy of his office, she wouldn't tell Schleiff what the story was.

Intrigued, he gave Dimond the go-ahead. Schleiff was rewarded in late November when she broke the story of authorities searching Michael Jackson 's Neverland ranch for evidence, the precursor to molestation charges filed against the pop star.

Dimond's work has put the network out front on what is certain to be one of the biggest legal stories of 2004 — no small matter when you're a news network devoted to crime and punishment.

Her tough reporting has also left Dimond vulnerable to charges that she's too identified with the prosecution, and that Court TV's coup could crumble if the case against Jackson does.

Jackson's arraignment on charges of molesting a boy under age 14 is scheduled for Jan. 16.

"There are a lot of people who adore him," Dimond said. "He's like Jesus Christ. I've become the vilified one, because I've dared to report it. I don't give my opinion. I put things in perspective."

Court TV has eagerly hyped its work on the story. In television's incestuous world, Dimond has appeared on several other networks as a Jackson expert. When reports surfaced about Jackson allegedly being treated roughly by Santa Barbara authorities, one of the first calls another news network made to check it out was to Dimond.

She was drawn in to Jackson's world a decade ago, when reporting for "Hard Copy" on the first molestation accusations against him.

Dimond, an Albuquerque, N.M., native, worked as a radio reporter in Washington in the 1980s before becoming bored with government news. She was a local TV reporter in New York, then landed at "Hard Copy."

"You hear the word `tabloid' now and it doesn't make people wrinkle up their nose in disgust the way it used to," she said. "I think that's because, whether they want to admit it or not, the networks have embraced a kind of populist journalism."

In her reporting, Dimond said she's been frozen out by Jackson's representatives, who don't return her calls.

She has pointedly cast doubt on contentions by the Jackson defense. For example, last February child welfare officials said they had been told by the alleged victim and his mother that nothing inappropriate had occurred, a story the family has since changed. Dimond said this initial investigation came before the boy told anybody, including his mother and therapist, about the alleged abuse.

Dimond has reported that the boy and his family were essentially held captive at Neverland for weeks. She questions Jackson's accusations that police roughed him up by saying he didn't appear in pain when waving to his fans.

Her reporting has been detailed and informed with an insider's knowledge that few others in television have matched.

"Obviously, what she has accomplished here is so superior to everyone else. She must be good and she is good," said attorney Brian Oxman, a Jackson family friend who has represented some of them in court.

Although he has high regard for her work, Oxman said Dimond's good sources in the prosecutor's office have blinded her to weaknesses in their case.

Dimond said she had heard from friends that Oxman spread rumors that she had an affair with Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon — among the most vicious insults to a reporter. She denies any such impropriety.

"The only thing I've said is that's she's pretty cozy with the DA," Oxman said. "If someone thinks that means something else, I suppose people might interpret that to think there's something else going on. I don't know. I just know that she is very cozy with the DA."

Dimond said she doesn't mind people believing that she's tight with the prosecution.

"I've got sources everywhere," she said. "Let 'em (think that). They're not right. It's good to let people think they have you figured out."

Schleiff said he admires Dimond's reporting. A week after the Jackson story broke, Court TV expanded her role at the network to include a regular anchor job for "Hollywood at Large."

"I think she's been aggressive, I think she's been solid and I think she's been fair," he said. "I know she's been diligent."

Dimond won't reveal her opinion on Jackson's guilt or innocence.

"I've learned a lot that I've put on the air and learned a lot that I could never put on the air because I couldn't substantiate it," she said. "But I'm going to keep my opinion to myself."

She's never met Jackson. They had one close call: while waiting outside of a California arena where Jackson was to accept an award a few year ago, she spied him getting out of an SUV with tinted windows.

Accompanied by her "Hard Copy" crew, Dimond shouted a question at him. Jackson turned toward her, stared briefly, then walked away.

She feels sorry for Jackson and his inability to have a normal life.

"Look at him," she said. "Look at what he's done to himself. He must be so full of self-loathing to carve off the tip of his nose and plant things in his cheeks. My overwhelming feeling for him is pity."

Jackson's camp says the family of the alleged victim is out for the pop star's money. Dimond said it's possible the boy's mother, who has filed no civil suit seeking damages, is just waiting for the moment when she can profit the most.

"But that's not my information," she said.


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