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Media Spotlight in Celebrity Trials Challenges American Right to Fair Trial

World media have descended on Santa Maria, California, to report on the child-molestation trial of singing superstar Michael Jackson.

When Mr. Jackson arrives at court each day -- and each afternoon when he leaves -- television reporters literally stand shoulder to shoulder on one-meter-wide patches of pavement, excitedly describing the scene. Behind chain-link fences nearby, some onlookers carry accusatory signs about Mr. Jackson, while clusters of his supporters -- some of whom have traveled from distant countries -- also posture and shout. In Santa Maria and in the hills surrounding Mr. Jackson's Neverland ranch, where the molestation is alleged to have occurred, U.S. tabloid reporters and the foreign press -- particularly from Britain and Australia -- scour for sensational revelations.

"The particular nature of this trial is very unseemly, even repulsive," says Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi, one of 1,000 media representatives who got credentials to cover the trial. "Yet Michael Jackson is one of the most famous people in the world -- such a weird and fascinating character that it's inevitable that there's going to be wide interest in this. I don't think you can fight that. And there is a certain amount of exploiting it by the media. It's kind of what the media do. It does sell newspapers and get people to watch TV."

Mr. Fahri says media coverage leading up to the trial also gets potential jurors interested in being selected for such a case -- even if they don't admit it.

"They will be part of a certain kind of history," he says. "There are going to be witnesses who are famous names -- Elizabeth Taylor, Stevie Wonder -- so there's a certain excitement to it." And so, the reporter says, when potential jurors were asked whether they had an opinion about Michael Jackson, one after another said they did not.

"How could you not have an opinion about Michael Jackson?" Mr. Farhi asks. "I guess a lot of people want to be part of this trial, and don't mind giving up six months of their lives to sit on the jury."

Among those scrambling to report each new development of the Jackson trial are reporters from the Santa Barbara News-Press, the daily newspaper whose coverage area includes Santa Maria. "[In determining] how much to report versus Mr. Jackson's right to a fair trial, our sense is, the more light we shine on the process and the way things work, the more people will get a sense of how the system does work for a celebrity," says Donald Murphy, the paper's deputy managing editor.

Judge Rodney Melville has barred outside cameras from the courtroom, and he's carefully managing media access. Only seven reporters are allowed into court, while a throng of other media watch the trial by closed-circuit camera from what's called the overflow room.

Kansas University law professor Mike Kautsch -- a former print reporter -- has been on both sides of the free press/fair trial debate. He says that since the 1970s, when TV cameras were first allowed in U.S. courtrooms, judges have become increasingly convinced that daily television coverage results in distortions. "Complex evidence can be presented in a single 'sound bite' on a television news program," Professor Kautsch says. "As a consequence, the public gets a wrong impression of the value of evidence or what it may mean in determining guilt or innocence. Instead of informing the public, it tends to misinform."

Professor Kautsch says that concern about misleading news coverage has affected another high profile case. Police in Wichita, Kansas, have asked the prosecution there to sue the media for inaccurate reports on the department's investigation of a serial killer who eluded and taunted police for more than 25 years. Dennis Rader, 59, was arrested last month and charged with murders attributed to the so-called "BTK" serial killer. The killer used the initials to sign messages to police, saying they stood for bind, torture and kill.

Professor Kautsch says some judges would like to keep the press out of the courtroom entirely, or forbid them from reporting what goes on. But he notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the public's right to know.

"Judges then began looking for other ways to protect the constitutionally guaranteed right of a fair trial for criminal defendants," professor Kautsch says. "The technique that has become fairly popular is to impose gag orders, not directly on the press, but instead on trial participants -- law enforcement officials, witnesses, and anyone else who may play a role in the trial -- on pain of being cited for contempt and being fined or imprisoned."

Lawyers, police officers, and witnesses are increasingly fighting these gag orders, insisting that they have a constitutionally guaranteed right to speak their mind. It is yet another dimension in the often prickly contest between free expression and the constitutionally protected right to a fair trial.