Tuesday, December 07, 1999

The Hartford Courant: The High Times of Tabloid TV

By DAVID DALEY; Courant Staff Writer
NEW YORK — It would have been the first shot of the tabloid decade: Frank Sinatra, all teary-eyed, mourning the death of his pal Sammy Davis Jr. In 1990, Burt Kearns rented a hidden camera and weaseled his way into the private ceremony at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, determined to get the shot for ``A Current Affair.''

``Ah, yes, Sinatra at the wake, crying over his little buddy in the box,'' Kearns, remembering the scene, said with a chuckle at a midtown Irish pub last week.

Nothing went as planned. The tiny camera he expected turned out to be a VHS recorder better suited for family birthday parties than sneaking into a funeral. When Kearns made his way past Casey Kasem and Little Richard and tried nonchalantly to score the shot of Sinatra, just five rows in front of him, ``his silver Caesar hairpiece taunting like a bull's-eye,'' security stopped him right away.

Kearns devised a back-up plan. He'd get Sinatra in a reflective mood as he walked back to his limousine. Sinatra's aides escorted the crooner out a side door. Kearns said his goodbyes to Little Richard and searched outside for his prey, looking for the hairpiece glittering in the sun. He found him, maybe 20 feet away, locked in the shot and shouted, ``Frank!''

``The way Sinatra turned around, I'll never forget it,'' Kearns said. ``Everything froze in that moment. Security jumps on top of me. I'm going down, screaming, `Frank! Frank!' Sinatra, in slow motion, turns around and looks at me like he's looking at a piece of dirt, then turns back and gets in the car. He didn't even react.''

That day, Kearns had to settle for a consolation prize, eavesdropping on Mary Hart and Chita Rivera back at the post-funeral gathering at Davis' Beverly Hills home and rummaging through his bathroom medicine cabinet in search of his glass eyes. But successful or not, it was another grand tabloid adventure for Kearns, and quite a long way from the staid, small-town papers in Ridgefield and Wilton where the Connecticut native covered his first stories.

Kearns grew up in Norwalk and Trumbull and moved to New York the night John Lennon died, when he realized he was wasting his time covering Wilton planning and zoning commission meetings.

He relates dozens of raucous adventures in his new memoir, ``Tabloid Baby'' (Celebrity Books, $27.95). It's a rollicking remembrance that romanticizes tabloid TV, as if the shows ``A Current Affair'' and ``Hard Copy'' were Hearst and Pulitzer battling over the Spanish-American War in the early days of yellow journalism.

Kearns helped pioneer tabloid TV as executive producer first of ``A Current Affair'' and then ``Hard Copy.'' He masterminded the theft of the Rob Lowe sex tapes; made William Kennedy Smith, Joey Buttafucco and John Bobbitt household names; and gets the credit for spying O.J. Simpson pal Robert Kardashian carrying what appeared to be Simpson's missing overnight bag away from his Brentwood estate.

Early on, Kearns learned the most important lesson of tabloid TV: If a story seems too good to be true, don't make too many calls checking it out. And he's delightfully unapologetic for all that tabloid TV has wrought in lowering the national common denominator.

``It's a great way to live. There's a purity in going after the story, writing it first and getting it before anybody else gets it,'' said Kearns. ``Tabloid TV was a noble cause when it began. It was not sleazy. It did not talk down to viewers. It democratized TV. ... We took the stories that were being ignored, and we made them big.

``The great freedom and the great wonder of it was you could just go out there and say, `Here's the story.' It's not'' -- here he adopts the pompous tone of a network anchor -- ``Clarence Thomas today was interrogated by the Senate, and Anita Hill had her say. We'd say, `Come on. Let's bring Long Dong Silver out!'''

But the shows that really learned from tabloid TV -- and ultimately led to the demise of ``Hard Copy'' and ``A Current Affair'' -- were the network newsmagazines. At Kearns' Park Avenue book party last week, tabloid veterans blamed the ``Dateline NBC''s of the world for destroying their shows by co-opting their stories.

``We weren't going out there in search of any journalistic Holy Grail. We were working for a buck,'' said former ``Current Affair'' correspondent Steve Dunleavy, now a pitbull columnist at the New York Post. ``But we really did enjoy being able to prick giant balloons. The people who turned their nose up at our particular menu, like Mike Wallace and `20/20,' suddenly started doing what we did.''

Adds writer Anthony Haden-Guest: ``The whole of the mainstream press has been tabloid-ized, by the tabloids. When you can open The New York Times and find a fairly accurate description of the presidential penis, and when a housewife can open a magazine and find out more about the president's sex life than she knows about her husband's, something very dramatic has happened.''
Kearns, however, suggests that the respectable press has always overstated the differences between itself and the tabs. To him, a tabloid story is simply one with a lot of emotion, real characters and a moral at the end -- a story with all the elements and drama of real life. He's started a new Web site -- tabloidbaby.com -- that promises links to the best tabloid stories of the day, and he revels in how they come from places people might not expect, like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Dallas Morning News.

``People used to accuse us of getting our stories out of the supermarket tabloids. Well, we didn't,'' Kearns said. ``I read 200 newspapers a day. We'd get stories from the nation page of The New York Times. The New York Times is one of the best tabloid papers in the world. We'd get stories off the B-sections of small papers. The story about the woman who killed her husband because she put him through medical school and he left her for a younger woman came from two paragraphs in the San Diego paper.''

Now, everything didn't come from the inside of some small-town paper.
``We did illegal things. We stole satellite feeds. We stole tapes. We blackmailed. We admitted we paid for stories. We were swashbucklers,'' he said. ``But back then, the network people would say the difference between the news and the tabloids is that we were out for ratings, and they were out to do the news. Well, things changed, and we led the way. We were too successful for our own good.''

The tabloids received two key assists in changing the face of network news, one from O.J. Simpson, and the other from Bill Clinton. Kearns started a tabloid show of his own in 1994 called ``Premier Story'' that was designed to go against ``Nightline'' at 11:30 p.m. But pretty soon it was hard to tell the tabloid from the network news show.

Only the network newsmagazines, Kearns said, are trashier than the tabloids and don't respect what he calls, with some irony, tabloid mentality. To the networks, tabloid is easy: blood, guts, sex and Elvis.''

``I watched `Dateline' the other night, and they were doing a love-triangle murder, and they showed photos of the crime scene with a woman's dead body on the floor of the living room. We would never have done that,'' he said. ``They show it in the courtroom, and people are revolted. You're going to show that on television? But the news people can do it. News can get away with a lot of things.''

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