The New York Times, in its efforts to transform itself into a truly national
newspaper, has of late decided to beef up its coverage from the third most important
city in the country, Los Angeles. LA has never had anything approaching the
depth of coverage that New York and Washington have, but now the Times wants
to start breaking entertainment-industry news, and to become more relevant to
After a long and high-profile
search, then, the Times finally alighted on Sharon Waxman, a Washingon Post
style reporter, to replace the fluffy and harmless Rick Lyman. A former foreign
correspondent, Waxman was charged with getting her byline on the news pages,
rather than simply observing the Hollywood hype machine.
And she’s done just that, with two consecutive stories, yesterday and today,
on the ongoing Michael Jackson affair. The first
one put a lot of meat on the bare bones of the "Jacko X" story,
trying to get to the bottom what the Nation of Islam was and wasn’t doing with
the beleaguered popster. After talking to half a dozen sources, both named and
anonymous, Waxman said that the Nation of Islam was essentially controlling
all access to Jackson, resulting, inter alia, in the departure of his
longstanding spokesman, Stuart Backerman.
The story was solid and well-reported, and even included a classic non-denial
denial from Jackson’s lawyer, Mark Geragos: "Mr. Geragos said that members
of Mr. Jackson’s security detail were Muslim but that that did not mean they
belonged to the Nation of Islam." That’s right, Mark, but it also doesn’t
mean they don’t.
Ultimately, however, the Times was late to the story, which was first
broken as early as December 18.
scoop, then, was today, with an article headlined "Michael Jackson’s
$1 Million Interview Deal". This story, in contrast to yesterday’s, is
a lot rockier, and, frankly, not up to the normal reporting standards of the
New York Times.
This isn’t a case of solid reporting under a sensationalist headline: the lead,
in typical let’s-try-to-fit-everything-into-one-sentence fashion, says that
"Michael Jackson struck a deal with CBS to be paid in effect an additional
$1 million for both an entertainment special to be broadcast on Friday and his
interview on ’60 Minutes’ this past Sunday, part of yearlong negotiations between
CBS and Mr. Jackson, a business partner of his said on Tuesday."
There follows 1,200 words of very dense and hard-to-follow prose, during which
none of the questions raised in the lead are really answered. What does "in
effect" mean? Who’s the "business partner"? And was Jackson paid,
or is he just of the opinion that he has "struck a deal to be paid"?
The story, of course, if it really was a story, could have been reported much
more simply: "CBS paid Michael Jackson $1 million for the interview he
gave to them." But the Times never really comes out and says that: rather,
it says that the $1 million was "additional", while remaining tantalisingly
vague on the subject of what, exactly, it was additional to.
What we know is that CBS had a $5 million deal with Jackson to put on an entertainment
special during a sweeps period, and that CBS had already advanced the singer
either $1 million or $1.5 million of that fee, depending on whom you believe.
The special was cancelled when Jackson was charged, and then reinstated after
Jackson gave the interview.
Everything else is murky. Here’s the Waxman reporting:
Both CBS and the Jackson business associate said that Mr. Jackson had failed
to record the show, effectively rendering the $5 million deal moot. CBS tried
to recoup some of the money it had advanced by offering another $1 million
in exchange for an interview by the correspondent Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes"
last February, the Jackson associate said.
Everyone agrees that interview never happened, because CBS never paid Jackson.
Fast forward to last week:
The latest round of negotiations resulted in an agreement to do the aborted
interview with Mr. Bradley, an airing of the special without the still-incomplete
music video and another $1 million to Mr. Jackson, according to the Jackson
I’ve read these paragraphs over and over again, and I just can’t make sense
of what they’re trying to say. If the Michael Jackson special was "moot"
as long ago as February and CBS wanted its $1 million back, how was it going
to get that money by paying the star another $1 million on top?
More importantly, what was the $1 million on top of? Was it on top of the $1.5
million already advanced, or was it on top of the $5 million already agreed
for the special? It’s a world of difference: if it’s the former, then far from
paying for the interview, it would seem that CBS actually managed to get its
Michael Jackson special for half the agreed price. But nowhere in her 1,241
words does Waxman deign to actually do the maths, and tell us that $1.5 million
+ $1 million = $2.5 million total, or that $5 million + $1 million = $6 million
If CBS ends up paying $6 million for a special plus an interview, after already
agreeing to pay $5 million for a special, then it certainly looks as though
the station has paid $1 million for an interview. If, on the other hand, CBS
ends up paying either $2.5 million or $5 million for the special plus the interview,
then it looks as thought the interview was free.
But Waxman completely fudges the question, simply saying that "it was
unclear how much Mr. Jackson will ultimately earn from the programs."
In a case like this, where you’re accusing a major news organisation of a major
ethical impropriety, you had better have your facts straight: making the
accusation and then saying that the facts are "unclear" is pretty
What’s worse, this entire story is based on a single anonymous source.
The only backup that Waxman has for her claims is this one "Jackson associate,"
whom she admits "was speaking to the news media because he had not been
paid his commission for negotiating the deal and had been denied access to Mr.
So scratch that: the entire story is based on a single anonymous source
with an admitted axe to grind. How often do such stories make it into the
New York Times’s news pages? Not often, I’d hope. If the Times does run such
stories – and I’m sure that most of us would rather it didn’t –
then it should do so only when the source is very, very senior, and very, very
trusted. But neither of those crtieria seems to obtain in this case: in fact,
Roger Friedman of Fox News says
Maybe someone should tell Times editor Bill Keller that Waxman spent a good
deal of her day on Monday chatting up Jackson’s former manager Dieter Wiesner.
Now back in Germany, where he owns sex clubs, Wiesner was very happy to tell
Waxman anything he could think of to destroy Jackson’s reputation.
I have no idea if Friedman is right, but it certainly fits: Wiesner was a named
source in yesterday’s story about the Nation of Islam, although he provided
no on-the-record quotes. He was also certainly in a position to be getting commissions
for negotiating deals.
In the end, I’m perfectly happy to believe the worst of everybody involved
in this – Jackson, Wiesner, Moonves, Friedman, and all the others. But
the New York Times shouldn’t print such an incendiary story about a rival news
organisation unless it’s sure it’s got its facts straight. I’m reasonably sure
that the New York and Washington news desks would never have printed this story;
the LA bureau should not be held to a lower standard.
UPDATE: Lisa de Moraes, in the Washington Post, weighs in with vehement CBS denials of just about everything in the article.