Monday, December 06, 1999

New York Observer: Steve Dunleavy and the Rise of Tabloid TV

Steve Dunleavy Snowplow Shocker!
In the opening pages of Tabloid Baby , television producer Burt Kearns’ memoir about the rise and fall of tabloid television, he writes that New York Post reporter Steve Dunleavy, “the ageless legend with his silver pompadour, eagle beak profile and rakish charisma, was the paragon of everything that made journalism romantic and dangerous. He was friend to cops and criminals, bums and kings. He knew the words to any show tune you could toss at him.” And then Mr. Kearns gets to the point: “Dunleavy, it was said, would fuck anyone, do anything– fuck anything –for a story.”
In journalistic parlance, that is the nut graph to Mr. Kearns’ first-person account of his immersion in the sweaty, up-all-night 120-proof world of tabloid television that media mogul Rupert Murdoch brought to America when he imported a band of Australian “wild pirates,” as Mr. Kearns referred to them in a phone interview, to run the American TV and media properties that he had purchased. In addition to Mr. Dunleavy, there was Peter Brennan, whom Mr. Kearns credits as the father of tabloid TV, and a young writer-producer named Wayne Darwen who was rarely without his milk carton full of vodka. (“Oy’m a wombat, baby,” Mr. Darwen would say, according to Mr. Kearns. “Eats roots and leaves.”) Rounding out the (hard-) core pirates were Mr. Kearns, a New Yorker who came by way of producing news for WNBC-TV and WNEW-TV (which became WNYW when Mr. Murdoch bought it), and a ponytailed Lithuanian Jew from Baltimore named Rafael Abramovitz.
Tabloid Baby , which was published without an index by a Nashville house called Celebrity Books ($27.95), chronicles the genesis of A Current Affair , Hard Copy and the tabloid TV genre, which caught fire in the mid-to-late 1980′s with the Robert Chambers preppy murder case and the Rob Lowe sex tape scandal (which is covered in a chapter called “Rob Lowe’s Big Dick”) and essentially came to an end with the O.J. Simpson trial, when the Big Three Networks and The New York Times decided they could hold out no more.
Mr. Kearns’ and his fellow pirates’ attitudes toward the networks is best exemplified in a chapter labeled “Jeff Greenfield Is a Big Fat Humorless Putz,” which details what happens when cameramen for the show Mr. Kearns is producing, Premier Story , were sent to tail then-ABC analyst Jeff Greenfield as he attempts to get in on the O.J. action. Mr. Greenfield, who is now a senior analyst at CNN, said his recollection of the incident was that it “was not journalism. This was thuggery.” As for the chapter title, Mr. Greenfield said that because the word putz “is a term of art,” he did not take issue with it, but he did not agree with the “Big Fat” or “Humorless” descriptions. In regard to his weight, Mr. Greenfield said: “I welcome him to check me out.” He then added: “Humorless? I don’t know. I do Imus every couple of weeks. He generally doesn’t have humorless folks on the show.”
Mr. Kearns employs a more affectionate version of this warts-and-all tabloid cheekiness when recounting the exploits of his own comrades, and Tabloid Baby is peppered with stories that have been making the rounds of the city’s tabloid newsrooms for years. For instance, he writes that during his first encounter with Mr. Dunleavy, “Dunleavy extended a bony hand, smiled, began to speak–and his false front tooth fell out of his mouth and plopped into my drink.”
Indeed, if the book justifies anything, it’s that Mr. Dunleavy deserves his title as the Keith Richards of tabloid journalism.
About halfway through the book, Mr. Kearns recounts how, around the time of Joey Buttafuoco’s rise to fame, Mr. Dunleavy in the midst of telling a joke at Elaine’s, begins to choke on his steak. Before Mr. Kearns could administer the Heimlich, and with Valerie Perrine and Sam Shepard watching in horror, Mr. Dunleavy coughed up the killer morsel of meat. Then, “He wiped off his chin, put the handkerchief and meat in his pocket, and to Sam Shepard’s obvious horror, resumed his drinking.”
Later that evening, when he and Mr. Kearns exit Elaine’s, Mr. Kearns catches Mr. Dunleavy looking down Second Avenue, “perhaps remembering his most embarrassing and life-threatening moment after leaving this restaurant on a snowy night not too many years ago.” Perhaps struck by the majesty of the city blanketed in white, Mr. Dunleavy “and a female companion stopped to make love on a snowdrift when they were run over by a city snowplow. Dunleavy suffered a broken leg.” (Mr. Dunleavy did not return a call asking him to comment about his exploits chronicled in Tabloid Baby , but in a column about the book that he wrote for the Post , Mr. Dunleavy noted: “Of course, I normally would have sued the son-of-a-gun for what he wrote about me, but I can’t–it’s all doggone true.” )
Mr. Kearns is less clear about the veracity of what he calls “the most famous Dunleavy and Brennan legend of all”; and with good reason. The story involves the two men allegedly taking a hit out on Ian Rae, the loyal Murdoch soldier with the nickname, “The Pig,” who had been brought in to oversee the development of A Current Affair .
Mr. Kearns writes that in the early years of A Current Affair , Mr. Brennan and Mr. Dunleavy “decided in a late night drinking bout that Ian Rae had brought them such misery that he deserved to die. The two of them were pissed as a couple of wine cellar rats, full as a state school, but Dunleavy managed to find the bar phone and dial up an old buddy, a union man known to take care of such requests.”
In Mr. Kearns’ recounting of the legend, Mr. Dunleavy “went back to the vodka” and didn’t realize what he’d done until a few hours later. When, according to Mr. Kearns’ story, he tried to rouse Mr. Brennan, Mr. Brennan mumbled: “Fuck the Pig. The Pig must die.”
When Mr. Dunleavy then tried to call back the union man, he found that he had already left for work. “I called in a hit on Ian Rae!” Mr. Dunleavy is alleged to have said. “It’s not free, you know. What was I thinking? What were we drinking–”.
Mr. Dunleavy’s remarks were then supposedly interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Rae in the office, which prompted Mr. Dunleavy to plant a big one on Mr. Rae.
Mr. Kearns writes about the legend in relation to his own thoughts about hiring someone to kneecap an old beau of his girlfriend, but when he brings up the Rae story to Mr. Dunleavy, saying: “You tried to take out the Pig!” Mr. Dunleavy replies: “That’s bullshit, it’s just a fucking story.”
Mr. Kearns’ book shows that even when the tabloid TV men weren’t on a story they couldn’t help acting like pirates. There’s a gruesome scene in 1991 that involves Mr. Kearns getting in a good-natured dust-up with former Good Day New York personality Gordon Elliott while Mr. Elliott is driving a carload of tequila-fueled swashbucklers on a mission to find Heidi Fleiss’ home. Mr. Kearns ends up being thrown from the moving car and then later gets hit in the face by one of his own cowboy boots (thrown by Mr. Elliott, of course). In a moment of tenderness, Mr. Elliott “held open my blood-spouting mouth and stuck his meaty fingers inside, feeling around gently to see if he’d knocked loose any teeth.” In reality, a hole had been ripped in Mr. Kearns’ cheek and a torn blood vessel had become a gusher. The front of Mr. Elliott’s rental car “looked like a fucking abattoir,” wrote Mr. Kearns, who landed in the hospital. Later, he added: “Gordon wouldn’t drink again for a couple of years.”
Then there’s the time that the tabloid guys are having dinner at Odeon and they spy David Letterman dining with an entourage at another table. Knowing that Mr. Letterman is unhappy with them for airing an interview with Margaret Ray, the woman who kept breaking into his Connecticut house (and would later commit suicide), they send over a cheap bottle of wine with a note that employs one of Mr. Letterman’s catch phrases at the time: Bite me.
According to Mr. Kearns, the note said: “To Dave: Bite Us. Drink This.” But Mr. Letterman “read the card, dropped it and resumed his conversation. He didn’t even crack a smile.”
Eventually, a lot of people began to feel the same way about the no-holds-barred mentality of the tabloid television guys, even as the networks began invading some of their turf. “We got a lot of people in power angry at us,” said Mr. Kearns, who eventually realized, “If you’re going to run with the pirates, in the end you walk the plank.”
Mr. Kearns, who married Alison Holloway, the correspondent of one of his tabloid shows, Premier Story , is now the father of a son. After leaving the tabloid TV business, he made a living as a professional gambler, but he has since returned to producing. He said he has produced an hourlong documentary for the Animal Planet cable network and was co-producer on an HBO piece called Panic! about anxiety attacks. But Mr. Kearns said his most recent producing job was Fox’s When Good Pets Go Bad II .
Mr. Kearns will be traveling to New York on Dec. 1 for a panel about tabloid and celebrity journalism that will take place at 6 P.M. at Borders book store on Park Avenue. Mr. Kearns said Mr. Dunleavy will moderate the discussion.

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