Tuesday, January 15, 2002

Tabloid-TV Queen Broke Jacko Arrest, Beats the Networks

Copyright 2003 The New York Observer, L.P.
New York Observer

December 1, 2003

Joe Hagan

On Monday, Nov. 24, exactly 153 hours after the Michael Jackson media maelstrom swallowed the TV-watching populace whole -- threatening to "suck all of civilization into its maw," as a New York Times editorial had it -- the woman who set the whole fracas into motion, Diane Dimond, a 51-year-old tabloid-news veteran, was sitting in the Third Avenue offices of Court TV, recalling the day the story broke.

"It was like the skies opened up and everyone and their mother wanted to talk to me," said Ms. Dimond, who was wearing a bright blue First Lady -- style dress suit, her face still caked in on-air makeup after a three-hour show.

It was Ms. Dimond whose camera crew first captured shots of the police cars entering Mr. Jackson's Neverland estate on Tuesday, Nov. 18, and it was she who first reported -- on Larry King Live -- that a warrant had been issued for Mr. Jackson's arrest.

Ms. Dimond, a contributor to Court TV, told her colleagues it would be "the mug shot heard around the world," and she was right. Consequently, Ms. Dimond's own mug came in a close second, appearing on NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, MSNBC and CNN, not to mention a half-dozen foreign outlets. On Monday, she acted as a correspondent for ABC's Good Morning America. Ten years ago, Ms. Dimond's dogged coverage for Hard Copy of Mr. Jackson's first child-molestation charge earned her a certain reputation -- as a dogged tabloid reporter. Since then, the mainstream media has fully and completely embraced her kind of story: the pungent, tacky, rubber-necking spectacle of celebrity under extreme distress.

"I think it's inevitable," said Ms. Dimond. "I think too many people wrinkle their nose at the word 'tabloid.' It is what it is. And if people didn't respond to it, it wouldn't exist. But it does. Their denial that they've stepped into that realm is laughable. It's laughable. And it's not something they should be ashamed of -- news isn't news if nobody watches. If you get on the air and start boring people with a script that makes them fall asleep, what good is that?"

Such was the Jackson story's draw that it bumped coverage of the conflict in Iraq out of the 24-hour news cycle -- ABC's Nightline replaced coverage of President Bush's speech in Britain for Mr. Jackson -- and even clawed its way above the fold in The Times two days in a row.

Ms. Dimond certainly got some level of satisfaction seeing her story flood every zone imaginable. Over the years, she said, she's been rebuffed by mainstream newsies because of her tabloid background. A decade ago, she said, Victor Neufeld, the longtime producer of 20/20 and now a morning producer at CBS, told her, "'You know, if you hadn't worked on that show [Hard Copy], you would have won a Peabody,' and I said, 'Well, O.K., maybe.' But from that point, 1994, I watched 20/20, Dateline, 48 Hours -- all of these shows -- get more and more tabloid. They won't admit it, they wouldn't call themselves 'tabloid,' but that's exactly what they are. I would go to do stories and knock on somebody's door, say, 'Hi, I'm Diane Dimond,' and they'd say, 'Oh, I can't talk to you, I promised Diane Sawyer I'd talk to her.' I mean, that seriously was said to me.'"

Susan Zirinsky, the executive producer of CBS's 48 Hours -- which also covered the Michael Jackson story on Saturday, Nov. 22 -- had no comment on being labeled a tabloid show, but she did admit that the public's appetite had changed over the years.

"I believe that the public's interest in things has varied," she said. "There is this incredible currency in celebrity, and magazine shows that are interested in stories that people are interested in are going to hit on these subjects. It's what we're supposed to do."

Ms. Zirinsky defined "tabloid" as a newspaper or TV show that is "likely to take things that are not truthful and, even with the barest of sources, promote that information." She also pointed out that The Times had run with the story, too.

The executive producer of Dateline NBC, David Corvo, also ran with the Jackson story and credited Ms. Dimond with breaking it in his program. He called her a "tenacious reporter." But Mr. Corvo said his show mixed popular stories with serious ones, which wasn't, by his definition, "tabloid."

"I'll have to leave it to Professor Dimond to decide what a tabloid is," he said. "There are techniques that tabloids use, like paying for interviews, which we don't do."

Then he added: "It was on the front page of The New York Times, for crying out loud!"

Ms. Dimond said that even the wizened news gods at 60 Minutes were, for all intents and purposes, doing what she considered tabloid journalism -- but, she said, unlike their counterparts at other newsmagazines, executive producer Don Hewitt and co-editor Mike Wallace would readily admit it.

"Mike Wallace would be the first one to say to you, 'Yeah, I do tabloid,'" she said. "'I package it real nice, and look at my promos: They're tabloid through and through. They're the best in the business.'" Ms. Dimond said she was a friend of Mr. Wallace's, having worked with his stepson, film director Eames Yates, at Hard Copy in the early 1990's. Mr. Wallace was unavailable for comment, but a 60 Minutes spokesman said, "Not only did we invent the genre, we're still the gold standard by which other newsmagazines are measured."

Ms. Dimond got her start in television news at WCBS Channel 2 in New York in the mid-1980's, where she covered the "Baby M" surrogate-mother case. She went national with Hard Copy in 1990, covering the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, and then hit critical pay dirt with her coverage of the first Jackson case, which earned her star status in the tabloid market. It also earned her the ultimate tabloid accolade, a $100 million lawsuit by Mr. Jackson himself in 1995 against Hard Copy, which aired Ms. Dimond's interview with a woman who claimed a video existed of Mr. Jackson having sex with a 13-year-old boy. The judge dismissed Ms. Dimond from the suit.

Since then, she's worked closely with Geraldo Rivera at CNBC, hitched her wagon briefly to Roger Ailes' Fox News Channel, and most recently had her phone tapped by private investigator Anthony Pellicano because of her involvement with the Jackson case.

Despite the fact that the Jackson story made the cover of The Times, Ms. Dimond did distinguish between the newspaper's news values and her own.

"I'm in a different type of journalism," she said. "I don't know how many people are exposed to their product as opposed to my product, but I'm sure they've got a lot more supporters with a lot more education than the people who listen to mine. But I don't know ... I don't want to slam The New York Times."

Ms. Dimond said that populist news like the stuff on Fox served a purpose -- it got people to watch news, which was why it was good.

"Everybody bemoans the fact that Fox News network is getting people to watch it," she said. "You know what? That's a good thing. Because at least they can form an opinion. If it's not an opinion that The New York Times happens to like, or the liberal media elite likes, well, that's too bad. America is not about one point of view. It just isn't."

While she may not get hired on 60 Minutes anytime soon, Ms. Dimond's latest coup has not gone unrewarded: On the day she spoke to NYTV, Court TV announced that Ms. Dimond would soon anchor its Thursday night prime-time program, Hollywood at Large.


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