Lost in Neverland

“The truth hurts,” said Steven Erlanger, culture editor of The New York Times , when asked about the radioactive Michael Jackson story his newspaper published on Dec. 31.

In the story, reporter Sharon Waxman quoted an unnamed source claiming that CBS in effect paid Michael Jackson $1 million for the access that led to an interview on Dec. 28 on 60 Minutes with Ed Bradley. The story, which suggested that a sacred separation between the CBS Entertainment division in Los Angeles and CBS News in New York-one of the last remaining bastions in the electronic media-had been breached, sparked a war between the two powerful news kingdoms. In the press, The Times stands by its story, continues to pursue the story and is proud of the story that raised questions of “checkbook journalism” at CBS, and of a kind of cultural acid rain at the network in which lack of integrity falls equally on the news, newsmagazine and entertainment divisions.

Meanwhile, CBS executives accuse The New York Times of shoddy reporting. And in recent days, back channels running between The Times ‘ West 43rd Street newsroom and CBS’s West 57th Street headquarters have carried a heated exchange-including private phone calls between the editors of The Times and CBS News executives-that is only escalating. After days of wrestling in the Michael Jackson tabloid compost pile, the two sides remain defiant. The Times loves its story. And CBS has come no closer to presenting a coherent narrative of how the network got that interview, except to say that there was no payment.

Mr. Erlanger stood by Ms. Waxman, the Times reporter on the Michael Jackson beat. Likewise, CBS News has stuck to its guns, launching its own fusillade of denials and counterattacks at The Times , primarily to defend the good name of Ed Bradley, who, The Times article implied, actually promised Mr. Jackson remuneration for his appearance.

Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes , told The Observer that CBS chief Leslie Moonves had called him personally to tell him that The Times ‘ claims were without merit.

“He said no money changed hands,” said Mr. Hewitt. “No money was paid to the Michael Jackson people to appear on 60 Minutes .”

Did Mr. Hewitt believe Mr. Moonves?

“Yes, I believe him,” he said. “I have no reason to believe that that isn’t the exact truth. I don’t believe he would have told me if it wasn’t true.”

Mr. Hewitt was therefore adamant that the interview was a perfectly legitimate journalistic enterprise, unburdened by secret deals made by the CBS leadership or its entertainment division to drive up ratings.

“All I know is that the interview fell in my lap with no strings attached,” he said. “I made no concessions and there were no strings attached, and I’m very pleased with the job Ed Bradley did on this story.”

Armed with that conviction, Mr. Hewitt blasted The Times in a letter published in part in USA Today on Tuesday, Jan. 6, assailing Ms. Waxman’s use of an unnamed source.

“Because we at 60 Minutes do not allow people with axes to grind to make wild, unsubstantiated accusations,” Mr. Hewitt wrote, “we assumed all news organizations worth their salt adhered to the same standards.”

Aside from his official statement calling the Times story “categorically false,” CBS Entertainment executives involved in the Jackson special have also publicly denied the facts in the article.

Mr. Erlanger said that CBS News president Andrew Heyward and Mr. Bradley had both called representatives of The Times to complain about the story.

“They call a lot,” Mr. Erlanger said. “Not just about this story. CBS is a serial caller on stories about CBS.”

The two news organizations have one thing in common: Mr. Jackson. Although the entertainer is usually fodder for Hollywood trade publications like Variety or the glossy tabloids and gossip columns like Rush and Molloy and Page Six, it’s been The Times that’s been driving the story this time around, becoming the first place for all things Jacko and legitimizing the story as cultural reporting to the mainstream press, including 60 Minutes .

But on Dec. 31, Ms. Waxman reported that Mr. Jackson had “struck a deal with CBS to be paid in effect an additional $1 million” for an interview with Mr. Bradley that ran on Dec. 28. The money, she reported, was in addition to $5 million paid by CBS Entertainment for a one-hour special that was originally slated for Nov. 26, but was postponed because of the child-molestation allegations. (The special, Number Ones , eventually aired on Jan. 2.) Ms. Waxman reported that an earlier interview scheduled for February of 2003 was canceled because Mr. Jackson demanded payment that CBS wasn’t willing to offer, citing confirmation from an unnamed CBS executive. The story further reported that later in the year, CBS held out on airing and paying Mr. Jackson for the show unless he agreed to sit down for an interview with CBS News.

In addition, using anonymous sources, Mr. Waxman detailed an earlier interview attempt by Ed Bradley and 60 Minutes in February 2003, in which Mr. Jackson refused to cooperate unless he was delivered the money previously agreed upon for the special.

“Michael was in his room,” Ms. Waxman quoted a business associate of Mr. Jackson as having said. “Ed Bradley had set up. Basically Michael wanted to see the rest of the money. Bradley kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.'”

The story sent shock waves throughout CBS. Was it true? Had the network’s most venerable newsmagazine show paid a tabloid celebrity to appear, as part of a bribe sweetened with a special produced by CBS’s entertainment division?

Of course, the two shows were connected in one respect: As CBS spokesman Chris Ender made clear in Ms. Waxman’s Times article, CBS News gained its leverage to get the Michael Jackson interview through the entertainment division. The one-hour special had been filmed before charges surfaced on Nov. 20 that Mr. Jackson had allegedly molested a young boy. CBS, Mr. Ender told Ms. Waxman for her article, “informed Mr. Jackson’s people we couldn’t broadcast the special if he didn’t address the charges on a CBS news program.”

CBS faces more than a publicity problem in the wake of the Jackson interview. Inside the organization the Times article has cast a shadow of doubt about the whole affair.

“Nobody knows what the facts are,” said one producer. “I haven’t really heard a full accounting in the press on the part of CBS …. I don’t believe them yet because I don’t think they’ve fleshed out their explanation.”

60 Minutes staffers returning from holiday vacations found a workplace that was a heady mix of confusion, anger and skepticism about the allegations printed in The Times . If they were true, the thinking went, CBS News had lost its independence from the network’s entertainment division.

“The hope is that we didn’t pay anything because it’s a line we’ve never crossed,” said the producer.

In fact not everyone at 60 Minutes is so reluctant to give their side of the story. Michael Radutzky, the producer of the Michael Jackson segment, detailed in an interview what happened at the Jackson estate in February of 2003. He contradicted the claim by an unnamed source in Ms. Waxman’s story that Mr. Jackson demanded money from Mr. Bradley in order for the interview to proceed, and that Mr. Bradley tried to assuage the entertainer by promising that the money would be forthcoming.

“Ed Bradley never, ever said anything to anyone suggesting, implying or stating outright that he would take care of Michael Jackson or pay any money for an interview,” he said. “Categorically untrue. Did not happen.”

“I was there, that’s why I know, in the room,” he added.

He said Mr. Bradley and the crew arrived at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 8, to set up their equipment, and were met by their contact, Mr. Jackson’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, who was and continues to be Mr. Radutzky’s central source with the Jackson camp. Mr. Bradley had only one conversation with Mr. Jackson, said Mr. Radutzky, and it was early in the day, before Mr. Jackson would eventually leave them hanging around for 10 hours without an interview.

“Michael Jackson briefly came out and said hello and welcomed us to his house,” he said. “He went into a room and spoke very briefly with Ed and Ed told him that he would treat him fairly. And Michael Jackson started talking about a spider bite he had and Ed Bradley said he had had a spider bite, too. That was the extent of the conversation.”

Mr. Jackson then bowed and left to go put on makeup, said Mr. Radutzky, and didn’t return.

The CBS contingent included CBS Entertainment division executive Jack Sussman, who had drafted the original deal between Mr. Jackson and CBS for the one-hour documentary special. Mr. Sussman and the CBS News staffers waited all day for Mr. Jackson to return. One report said that Mr. Jackson received a phone call from Marlon Brando advising him against the interview, which is why it was eventually called off.

“Nobody ever confirmed that as a fact, but it was among the things being discussed among his people there,” said Mr. Radutzky.

While the Times story stated that the 60 Minutes team spent two days waiting for Mr. Jackson to do the interview, a CBS spokesperson said Mr. Bradley left the next day to return to New York, while the producer Mr. Radutzky stayed in Los Angeles for a few more days.

Mr. Radutzky and other producers at 60 Minutes were adamant that their pursuit of the Jackson story was a legitimate journalistic enterprise that took place separately from any entertainment deals that Mr. Jackson may have struck with CBS. He said he’d been trying to obtain a Michael Jackson interview since 2001, when a number of TV producers had been vying for access to create a documentary about Mr. Jackson. Previously, CBS had aired a Nov. 2002 special on Mr. Jackson.

“I’ve been working on this since before the Bashir interview that he gave,” he said, referring to the two-hour documentary, Living with Michael Jackson: A Tonight Special , that Martin Bashir made for ABC. “I was trying to get the interview for 60 Minutes and when I found out that Bashir had done the interview with him, I was surprised. And afterwards, Jackson was very pissed off about the interview and indicated that he wanted to do something with 60 and we went out there to do what we thought was going to be an interview in February.”

That interview never happened, but Mr. Radutzky said he spoke with Mr. Jackson’s lawyer, Mr. Geragos, “several times” after that to try and re-establish an interview. It was just a few days before Christmas when Mr. Radutzky next received a call from Mr. Geragos-he never heard from any CBS Entertainment executives, he said-that an interview was forthcoming.

It took place on Christmas night.

Was Mr. Sussman, the CBS Entertainment division executive, there at the second interview as well?

“I believe he was there for the second one,” said Mr. Radutzky, but he maintained that he never had a conversation with Mr. Sussman or any other entertainment official that involved money. “All I know is I never talked about money with the Jackson camp,” he said. “I didn’t talk to the entertainment people about what they had on the table. All I did was pursue my story as a 60 Minutes producer.”

Asked about Mr. Sussman’s role in the interview, Mr. Hewitt said Mr. Sussman did not interact with his news crew. “At no time did he open his mouth,” he said. “He was there but he never volunteered anything or asked a question or said anything.”

The presence of a mysteriously silent CBS Entertainment executive on the set of a news show may seem odd, even confusing. And the news division’s spare, official rebuttal of the Times piece does little to settle the question.

“For the record,” a CBS press release said, “CBS News does not pay for interviews and did not pay Michael Jackson or anyone connected to him for this interview, directly or indirectly.”

But spokespersons for CBS and for Mr. Sussman have yet to answer detailed questions about the deal, or describe how it came to be. And if the special helmed by Mr. Sussman had nothing whatsoever to do with the interview for 60 Minutes , why was Mr. Sussman present on the set for Mr. Bradley’s interview?

CBS Entertainment spokesman Mr. Ender told The Observer that Mr. Sussman “was there as a CBS representative who has had a long-standing relationship with Michael Jackson and his representatives. He had no editorial role, input or involvement in the interview process whatsoever.”

But what about CBS Entertainment? Could Mr. Sussman have arranged a sweeter deal for the one-hour special in order to secure the 60 Minutes interview? Mr. Sussman has said no, but provided no description of how the booking actually took place. And without a look at the contract between the entertainment division and Mr. Jackson it’s hard to say whether some other arrangement between CBS Entertainment and Mr. Jackson’s representatives might have “in effect” paid Mr. Jackson to appear on the CBS News program.

That confusion, said The Times ‘ Mr. Erlanger, was part of the story.

“To me this is one of those stories where news and show business gets confused,” he said, “where the lines get blurred and that’s what’s interesting to me about it.”

And, what’s more, the sharpness and speed of the paper’s reporting effort has spotlighted new priorities at the culture section under Mr. Erlanger. While The Times is no stranger to breaking entertainment news-television reporter Bill Carter broke the negotiations between ABC and David Letterman in 2002-devoting that kind of reporting focus to celebrity scandal is still pretty new; it’s generally been saved for the business pages, rationalizing it as business reporting, while the paper’s culture pages covered SUNY academics and chronicled internal strife at Lincoln Center.

“This is one that falls between spaces,” Mr. Erlanger said. “In general, this is the kind of story I want Arts to cover. It’s certainly not a police blotter story per se.” Michael Jackson, he said, “is first and foremost an artist. He has a significant reputation and following. He is an important figure to big companies. And there’s interest.

“You could say Britney Spears ought to be a business story, but I think the bias of coverage of Michael Jackson ought to be an arts story.”

For Mr. Erlanger that has meant it’s been a Sharon Waxman story. A longtime Washington Post staffer who did roughly eight years covering the Hollywood beat, Ms. Waxman was tapped as former Hollywood correspondent Rick Lyman’s replacement in October 2003 after what was an extended and exhaustive search.

“She’s a very welcome hire,” Mr. Erlanger said. “As you know, we’d been working to fill that job for quite some time. We were eager to get an aggressive reporter who knew the landscape and had a reputation for being hard but straight.”

The first of her stories on Michael Jackson plopped on page A-1 on Dec. 30. In a piece entitled “Dispute in Michael Jackson Camp Over Role of the Nation of Islam,” Ms. Waxman asserted that “officials from the Nation of Islam, a separatist African-American Muslim group, have moved in with Michael Jackson and are asserting control over the singer’s business affairs,” citing sources among the entertainer’s friends, employees and business associates. The story was denied by both official representatives of Mr. Jackson and The Final Call , the Nation of Islam’s newspaper.

“It was an accurate story,” Mr. Erlanger said. “It also fleshed out and made clear in a concrete fashion what had been rumored but unsubstantiated.”

For her part, Ms. Waxman said that her later article, on Mr. Jackson’s arrangement to appear on 60 Minutes , was accurate and used multiple sources. She said that subsequent reporting had only affirmed up her faith.

“I feel very solid on that story,” she said. “All the reporting I’ve done since the story’s been published has reinforced my reporting originally. I haven’t come across any information in my reporting that’s led me to believe the story’s incorrect apart from the official denials.”

Though Ms. Waxman spoke to executives from CBS, including Mr. Sussman, she did not receive any comment from 60 Minutes itself.

“I asked to speak to Ed Bradley,” Ms. Waxman said. “I was told Ed Bradley was on vacation, and even if he was not on vacation he would not be available to be interviewed. I asked to speak to Ed Bradley’s producer. I was told that he was on vacation and even if he was not he would not be available for an interview. I asked to speak to Don Hewitt. I asked to speak to anyone from 60 Minutes . I was told no one would be available for the story.”

And The New York Times is not ready to stop reporting the story. “I’d like to further explore the themes I’ve identified,” said Mr. Erlanger. “I certainly want more information: a copy of the contract. It’s a very rich theme in today’s United States if that doesn’t sound too awful. In companies with a variety of interests it’s sometimes hard to separate interests and responsibilities. Even if you think you’ve done a good job of separating, it’s not always clear to people you want to interview, or promote or sell records for. It’s a complicated topic that every big media company, including this one, has to deal with.”