Wednesday, December 08, 1999

Salon.com: Tabloid Nation

The man who produced "Hard Copy" and "A Current Affair" remembers the gory, golden age of trash TV.

Tabloid television isn’t dead. Shows such as “A Current Affair” and “Hard Copy” that thrived on news, gossip and scandal and brought the world dramatic reenactments and hidden-camera scoops were simply made redundant.

Burt Kearns was a producer on both of those shows. To hear him tell it, tabloid TV simply morphed into network news magazines, syndicated talk shows, ceaseless cable “news” coverage and those morning programs where the men all wear sweaters and the coffee is decaffeinated.

“When I want to watch my tabloid stories now,” says Kearns, “I’ll watch the ‘Today’ show. There’s no better tabloid team than Matt Lauer and Katie Couric.”

This may come as news to anyone who thinks tabloid TV was, in its purest form, all about Elvis sightings and ax murders. But for Kearns, who is in New York promoting his book “Tabloid Baby,” an amusing if somewhat self-serving account of his years in the business, most people just don’t get it. And that includes many of the programmers who imitated and co-opted the brass-tacks style of his early shows. “Nobody is covering those stories the way we covered them,” he complains. “They’re doing it the network way. They’ll do a story on a UFO cult and cut to Keith Morrison at NBC and he’s rolling his eyes. They still look down on people.”

Kearns doesn’t look that different from any number of Los Angeles TV producers. An affable, good-looking man in his early 40s, he’s talking to me between appearing on a panel on tabloid TV and doing a radio interview. Appropriately, he has chosen Langan’s — an Irish bar in midtown Manhattan frequented by New York Post writers — for our interview; so much of “Tabloid Baby” (which covers the period from Kearns’ 1989 arrival at Fox’s “A Current Affair” to the cancellation of Paramount’s “Hard Copy” earlier this year) floats by on a sea of vodka. And Steven Dunleavy, a Mephistophelean character in Kearns’ book, writes a column for the Post now. In fact, during the interview he appears at the bar as if conjured and signals the barman for a refill while lighting a Parliament.

“Joey Adams died today,” says Dunleavy solemnly in his Aussie accent. He’s wearing a corduroy jacket that nearly matches the color of his tan, and he sports a Porter Wagoner-style pompadour.

“No shit?” says Kearns. Adams, husband of Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams and aggregator (if not author) of a million one-liners, had been ill for some time. “Cindy was supposed to be on this panel with me last night but said she had family business.”

There is a beat before he adds: “At least it was a real excuse.”

With its hard drinking and quick cynicism, the world that “Tabloid Baby” limns is a sort of throwback to yellow journalism’s days of yore. “In the worldview of ‘A Current Affair,’” Kearns writes, “people didn t insult the Church, and sex was naughty — the word unsaid, only spelled out, S-E-X — values needed to be upheld, and all offensive images needed to be shown in as explicit detail as the lawyers would allow.”

This combination of titillation and hypocrisy was imported from Australia by Rupert Murdoch, who staked his claim to the States when he purchased 20th Century Fox and the Metromedia TV stations in the mid-’80s and formed the Fox Broadcasting Corp. And when he needed news magazines, he didn’t look to “60 Minutes” as a role model. He called on some of the same Aussie journalists who had reinvented the print tabloids for him there — men like Dunleavy and Peter Brennan.

It is Brennan whom Kearns credits with splitting the atom of the tabloid-TV formula. “Now, you get back from a story, what happens?” Brennan would ask his charges. “You talk to people. You go to a bar and your friends say, ‘What were they really like? What really happened?’ If you give an answer that wasn’t in the story, if the viewer or your mother can ask what the people in your story are really like, you’ve told the typical television version of the story. ‘A Current Affair’ tries to do the story between the lines and turn it into lines.”

For Kearns, who came to Fox from WNBC, this new way of reporting was liberating. “In the so-called legitimate news,” Kearns tells me, “the idea was to make sure you have the same story everyone else does and make sure you cover it the same way, and make sure you have what everyone else has. With ‘A Current Affair,’ you’d walk in each morning and say, ‘What’s the most interesting story going on right now?’”

And according to Kearns, they didn’t take their lead from the supermarket tabloids, either. The “Current Affair” staff scanned hundreds of newspapers for offbeat stories. They broke a map of the United States into five sections, like the five boroughs of New York, and assigned reporters to cover each. And, OK, they pissed off a number of celebrities in the process.

“It was never journalism,” Kearns says of what they were doing. “It was what the Australians would call a piss-take on journalism.” And it was much safer — and more just — to “take the piss” out of public figures like Steven Spielberg, whose divorce from Amy Irving got the “Current Affair” treatment, including clips from “Jaws” that equated interloper Kate Capshaw with Bruce the Shark. This resulted in a phone call from Spielberg to Fox studio head Barry Diller, which Kearns interprets as follows:

“Hello, Steven!”

“Barry, if I live to be 90, I will never do a movie for Fox.”

Kearns estimates that cost the company around $500 million.

In an effort to infuse the show with some semblance of respectability, Murdoch sent Anthea Disney to police the troops. Disney had worked her way up through the ranks of Murdoch’s empire, starting as a Fleet Street reporter. She cultivated a tough-cookie persona (I worked for her myself at another venture) and she put the “Current Affair” staff on notice. She told Variety that she was under orders to make the show “more New York magazine and less New York Post.” Kearns, who had advanced to executive producer, saw the writing on the wall and resigned to go to Hollywood and join the rival tabloid show, “Hard Copy.”

Disney is one of many who may not be pleased at how they are depicted in “Tabloid Baby.” Her stated desire to class up “A Current Affair” clashed with some of the excesses that occurred on her watch — most notably Steve Dunleavy’s payment to a witness in the William Kennedy Smith trial. (The $40,000 he paid to Anne Mercer, who drove Smith’s alleged victim from the Kennedy mansion that night, caused Mercer’s testimony to be discredited. “I have to thank Steve Dunleavy for what he did with Anne Mercer,” Smith’s attorney said when his client went free.)

Kearns is not above floating a few old rumors about Disney’s marital problems and personal life in his book, and says that she tried to keep it from getting published. “She was running HarperCollins at the time,” he says. “She’d seen the book. It went to her company. She didn’t want it published. I don’t hold that against her.”

“Bullshit,” says Disney, who is now vice president of content at News Corp.  “I never saw his book and wasn’t aware that it came to HarperCollins. It makes a much better story to say that someone tried to stop your book than to say that no one wanted to publish it.”

The Kennedy Smith saga was a “Hard Copy” exclusive at first; “A Current Affair” and “Inside Edition” tried to take the high road. “And the network guys didn’t understand that it was news,” says Kearns.

“Shows how wrong they were. And it showed how little sleazy tabloid stories can turn into news. It ignited the whole debate on date rape, naming the victims in rape trials.” (It’s worth noting that the New York Times was one of the first papers to identify Smith’s accuser by name.) “And then, months later, when Clarence Thomas was up for the Supreme Court judgeship, and he got involved in the thing with Anita Hill, Teddy Kennedy, the great voice of liberalism, couldn’t open his mouth because he’d been shamed in this case.”

One could argue that almost any Kennedy story can be made into tabloid fodder without turning the dial too far, what with that big back story of family tragedy and misadventure. The first real crossover tabloid story of the ’90s broke on May 10, 1992, when Amy Fisher shot Mary Jo Buttafuoco in Massapequa, N.Y. It had all the elements of a true-life soap — the clueless wife, the loutish Lothario, the mystery vixen — save one.

“There was no one in the story you could feel sorry for,” says Kearns, “no one that you could identify with. In every tabloid story there is one character — you see [the story] through that person’s eyes, you identify with that person. In the Buttafuoco story you couldn’t identify with the victim.” As the story morphed and grew, with new revelations every week and more and more perfidy captured on tape, the nation reached saturation. Even People magazine now seemed to subsist on the “Long Island Lolita.” We had become a tabloid nation.

O.J. Simpson, of course, gave us victims we could identify with and a slow train wreck of a trial that was virtually inescapable. The “tabloid babies” of Kearns’ narrative had crossed over to the networks (even as some network people went in the other direction). The first time “Nightline” covered the murders, five days after Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were killed, Ted Koppel apologized; when the ratings went through the roof, he quit saying he was sorry.

Soon it was all O.J., all the time, from Regis and Kathie Lee in the morning to Jay Leno jokes at night. The trial itself took center stage and tabloid TV as practiced by Kearns and company seemed downright quaint. “When the world was watching from their offices live,” he says, “we were repackaging it with alliteration and music — who needs that shit?”

Today, in place of “Hard Copy” and “A Current Affair,” we have “Dateline,” “60 Minutes II,” “20/20″ and “48 Hours” — and that’s just on the networks. Kearns wrote some pilots and cast about for a new project.

His collected notes came together in “Tabloid Baby,” which he is promoting now with the help of his wife, Allison Holloway, another veteran of the scene. He doesn’t come out and say that he couldn’t get arrested after a career in tabloid television, though he admits his prospects looked dim. His last project was for Fox: “When Pets Go Bad II.” I ask him how people come up with ideas like that.

“You walk into a room, it’s like the monkeys with the typewriters,” he says. “It’s full of video monitors and people are transcribing every piece of video in the world. And they might find they have 10 great pieces of video of animals attacking people — ‘When Pets Go Bad!’” Voila.

A lot of it is in the packaging — like that film of a donkey sexually assaulting a man whom the beast had found defecating in his pasture. “Fox has always wanted to air it but never could,” Kearns claims. “Every time someone presented it to them they would put on ragtime music and sound effects — ‘Boing!’ I saw it and was horrified. This makes ‘Oz’ look like ‘Touched by an Angel.’ It was horrific. So I played it very straight and put some scary music behind it — ‘This man is invading the territory of an animal …’”

For the holidays they had footage of a Santa being attacked by one of his reindeer. It was a reenactment, actually. The injured Santa was demonstrating how he’d been attacked, but things went badly. “He was screaming, ‘Help!’” Kearns recalls, nursing the last of his beer. “We thought he was doing it for the camera but, no, he was bloody. It rated very well.”

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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.''

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.

Sunday, November 14, 1999



Johnny Lester had just gotten out of the slammer after 13 years for canceling the ticket of a guy who insulted his wife.

He wasn't a victim of nightmares in his cell, but he thought he was witnessing a miracle when Rafael Abramovitz appeared at the bar room door.

"My God," Johnny exclaimed. "That must have been some operation to get Raf back on his feet."

On the television show "A Current Affair," Raf was always pictured sitting down at a word processor in various parts of the country.

"All the guys in prison thought he was disabled. We all felt sorry for him because we didn't know he could walk."

Johnny was typical of the crowd that surrounded "A Current Affair." Con men, criminals, celebrities, politicians - all seemed to remain part of the show's extended family, even when we beat them up.

Burt Kearns, in his new book "Tabloid Baby," takes us on a delightful and raucous romp through that world.

It was a world that will never be seen again. The wildest bunch of pirates imaginable. I know because I was there.

In eloquent if sometimes brutal prose, Kearns, a senior producer on the show, unmasks all the usual suspects, which would guarantee that Tom Brokaw wouldn't let himself be buried in the same cemetery as any of us.

Kearns sums up the spin when he describes being offered a job at CBS:

"There was something about CBS that didn't smell right.

"Something cultish in the way employees saw themselves upholding a sacred tradition, carrying out some grand mission to spread the CBS orthodoxy."

Well, Dan Rather we weren't, but more like a brazen bunch of bandits who ambushed, conned, begged, borrowed, bought and charmed to grab that story.

"We'd taken television to a delirious and dangerous edge," Kearns writes.

In varying doses of scandal, celebrity, crime, politics and morality, the tabloid television tales riveted a nation for a decade and Kearns grabs it all in print.

Like stories of the exclusive video of Robert Chambers, the "Preppy Killer," secured by Abromovitz, which wiped the networks' clocks.

And the sex tapes of brat-packer Rob Lowe, which bewitched millions although Kearns admits to hijacking the tape.

But if the elite networks turned their noses up at the menu, then shrieks of silence followed when they saw the "A Current Affair" SWAT team in action when the Berlin Wall came down.

The team, led by Kearns, consisted in part of Maury Povich, a class act, the giant Gordon Elliott, and scrappy reporter David Miller.

When the Rathers, Jennings and Brokaws saw Gordon Elliott climb the wall and then start chipping away with a pick ax as the cameras rolled, the networks knew who was doing the driving.

Kearns actually admits to a borderline kidnapping of a German from New York and a forced reunion with a brother in East Germany, who hated his guts.

"We were the f-ing champions of the world," Kearns exults in the book.

At the helm of the hysterical high-tension hijinx was the gentle genius producer Peter Brennan and executive producer Ian Rae. They were ably aided and abetted by a marvelous maniac called Wayne Darwen. Also on board was Scotsman Dick McWilliams.

The news room resembled something out of a rerun of Hildy Johnson's "Front Page."

The air was blue with language, political incorrectness and cigarette smoke. And while there may not have been a whiskey bottle in the bottom drawer, there was plenty of the stuff at the bottom of the stairs and across the road at The Racing Club.

The title of the book, "Tabloid Baby," tells you how it all went full circle until Kearns goes respectable, marries beautiful British TV anchor Alison Holloway and has a lovely son called Sam. All wrapped up in Los Angeles suburbia.

Those wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine.

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.

Wednesday, November 10, 1999

NY Press: Bad Boy TV

Nov 10-18, 1999
Page One
John Strausbaugh on Publishing

Burt Kearns came roaring into the 1990s with television's barbarians, introducing tabloid tv to America as a producer of A Curtrent Affair and later Hard Copy.  As the decade ends, neither of these shows remains on the air, and Kearns' latest project, which happens to air on Fox this Thursday night, is, he tells me, "a very highbrow specal" called When Good Pets Go Bad 2.

What happened?

“I’m sorry, man," he says. "I need the work."

But he says it with a laugh. This is not a sob story. Kearns has been up and down and up and down again over the past decade. He’s done O.J. and William Kennedy Smith, Son of Sam and Lobster Boy, Strange Universe and huge-titted strippers. He’s worked with Travolta and coproduced Kim Basinger’s recent HBO special on panic attacks. He did a lot of drugs and drinking, then turned 40 and settled down in Malibu with the blonde of his dreams, the pretty British newscaster Alison Holloway.

Along the way, he helped change forever the way the news gets told on tv. If you’re the typical media pundit, you’d call the change a devolution into vulgar tabloid stupidity. If you’re Kearns, it’s a democratic revolution, teaching television how to give the people the news they want instead of the news stuffed shirts like Mike Wallace and Jim Lehrer think they need.

In the end, he argues, television learned that lesson too well: When Dateline and Extra rule the weeknights and Barbara Walters conducts a serious interview with the girl who fellated the President, all tv news has become tabloid tv. "At the dawn of the 21st century," he claims with mock portentousness, "the networks have regained control of the mainstream, yet the course of the mighty river has shifted irrevocably–and many of those driving the network ships were trained in the tabloid television newsrooms."

Kearns is defiantly, happily unapologetic about that lowbrow, low-class effect he’s had on tv. That’s part of what makes his memoirs such an absorbing read. Tabloid Baby (Celebrity Books, 490 pages, $27.95) is a funny, brash,packed-with-anecdotes account of his role in the trashing (my usage) of tv news. If Kearns lays on the mythologizing a bit thick–his portraits of colleagues like Steve Dunleavy come straight out of 1930s hero-worship of the two-fisted, whiskey-pounding newspaper reporter–it’s probably just because he’s looking to sell HBO the movie rights, and why not. Besides, even his heroes show their warts, and portraits of powerful media figures like Barry Diller, Diane Dimond, Anthea Disney and Jeff Greenfield are boldly unattractive.

“There is a reason my book couldn’t get published in New York," he remarks ruefully (Celebrity is an independent publisher in Nashville). He claims he’s already had trouble scheduling author appearances on tv.

On the broad scale, Tabloid Baby is a simple and familiar tale about the Aussification of the news: that is, it’s about the enormous, and many would say enormously detrimental, impact Rupert Murdoch and his piratical Aussie crew have had on news, both in print and electronic, both here and in England, over the last decade. Kearns had come to Manhattan from Connecticut as a young newsman and spent the 1980s working for the Channel 5 and Channel 4 news organizations when Murdoch’s Fox Television decided to launch an American version of the popular Australian show A Current Affair. (Good Day New York was similarly a New York knockoff of an Aussie show, hence the name.)

In 1989, Kearns came over from the Channel 4 newsroom, which was, he says, still reeling from the aftershocks of parent NBC’s having been bought and gutted by "Neutron Jack" Welch’s GE. He felt instantly at home. The largely Australian team, which included Dunleavy and producer Peter Brennan, were basically running A Current Affair out of the bar across the street from Fox’s offices.They were loud, brash, boorish, vulgar, hard-drinking, fun-loving cowboys. Kearns loved it. He’d done a lot of moonlighting for CBS News in the 80s, and had formed a bad opinion of corporate television news. "There was something about CBS that didn’t smell right," he writes, "something cultish in the way the employees saw themselves upholding some sacred tradition, carrying out some grand mission to spread the CBS orthodoxy… They all just took things so seriously." While his colleagues at Channel 5 got up a dead pool on when Cardinal Cooke "would finally kick the bucket," at CBS he found "the newswriters sniffling and consoling each other over the imminent passing of brave Barney Clark, the artificial heart recipient. Sheesh."

He found no such piety at A Current Affair, where Brennan seriously told him his model for the show was not other news broadcasts but rather The Dick Van Dyke Show. He wanted Kearns to learn how to tell a news story the way you’d tell it to your friends at the bar: sex, scandal, jokes, celebrities, heartstrings. Brennan and the Aussies had their own take on American tastes, Kearns argues, and it was very, very different from what the Ted Koppels and Dan Rathers thought Americans wanted–and ought to want:

The ability to recognize the undercurrents of America beyond the Beltway and across the Hudson was key to A Current Affair’s success. The men behind the show were foreigners who had a far better understanding of the national psyche than the network newspeople who spent their careers in windowless newsrooms or trading notes in gang bang press briefings. These men were writers, trained in the cadet system of Australian newspapers, cynical veterans of the world’s most hardscrabble newspaper wars from Fleet Street to Hong Kong, men who had imagination and balls and little respect for the trenchcoat and hairspray conventions of American television news.

For them, news-telling wasn’t the privilege of the elite…

Maybe Kearns’ best anecdotal metaphor for the gulf between the network and tabloid news culturescomes from the O.J. trial. Tabloid tv crews (A Current Affair having by then spun off imitators like Hard Copy and Inside Edition and Now It Can Be Told) had staked out the courthouse entrance relentlessly, a daily grind, weeks on end, fighting like piranha for scraps of news, when one day this schmuck shows up, elbowing his way through the cameramen and reporters and setting up a ladder. He climbs this ladder and he’s up there, looking down on all the rest of them, when they recognize him: network media pundit-putz Jeff Greenfield. A risible confrontation ensues between the pompous Greenfield and a young cameraman, Joe Guidry (now an independent producer), who effectively shames Greenfield down off his high perch and out of the crowd entirely.

The larger point behind a story like that, Kearns says to me, is that network tv was not only late to the party, but never would have even covered the O.J. trial if tabloid tv hadn’t been there first and shown how popular that kind of coverage could be. He remembers being "the only one on the William Kennedy Smith story" for a solid week before the networks deigned to pay attention to it. By the late 90s, as Monicagate demonstrated, all that had changed.

On a more petty level, various other famous asses get satisfying comeuppances in Tabloid Baby. There was the time Gordon Elliott, another Aussie, followed Bryant Gumbel’s boat around the harbor, annoying him through a bullhorn just to get him to blow his studied cool on camera. Or the time Elliott hired a Gorbachev lookalike, posted him on the sidewalk outside Trump Tower and convinced Trump the Russian leader wanted to meet him. Trump "actually took the golden elevator down and walked out to the sidewalk with his aides for an official greeting… He was exposed as the self-important asshole he was."

As Kearns tells it, those kinds of wild-hair antics never really sat well with many of Fox’s executives, some of whom might very well be seeing Trump at a cocktail party or fundraiser the next day. An internal struggle to clean up A Current Affair’s act pitted Barry Diller and the "Velvet Mafia" in Hollywood against the New York-based, largely Aussie crew. The Aussies gradually lost out, and Kearns found himself moving to Hollywood to work for Paramount’s upstart competitor to A Current Affair, Hard Copy.

He tells some great Hollywood-sleaze stories, including a meeting with Bernie Brillstein, manager-producer and wheeler-dealer, whose clients included Garry Shandling and various Saturday Night Live types (they called him The Man Who Killed Belushi because he bankrolled the comedian’s final blowout). Brillstein was too vulgar even for Kearns. Minutes into their first meeting, he was talking about starlets he’d like to pork:

Brillstein was male bonding. I could picture him with Belushi, rhapsodizing about how he’d like to give that skinny Larraine Newman a shot in the ass. "I’ll tell you, all these Amy Fisher movies, you know who I’d love to fuck?" His assistant… nodded as if he’d heard it all before. "I’d love to fuck that Drew Barrymore. Oooh."

"E.T., yeah," I said, thinking, well, it took three years but we were in. This was Hollywood; a powerful fat man with a commanding view of the city, fantasizing about fucking a seventeen-year-old.

A Current Affair died in 1996; Hard Copy finally went down last spring. They were killed, Kearns argues, by their own success. The mainstream media took over the tabloid tv impulse, cleaned it up, softened it, turned it into Entertainment Tonight and 20/20 and Dateline. Meanwhile, one could also argue that "reality tv" came on even cruder, rougher, more in-your-face, and stole the low end out from under the Brennans and Kearnses–in effect, home-movie and disaster-video tv eliminated these guys as unnecessary middlemen between the raw product and its audience. So much tv became tabloid that the original tabloids got squeezed out.

By the end of Tabloid Baby, Kearns is getting along as an independent producer in L.A., still working largely lowbrow-sounding projects like Strange Universe, one of those series about "the paranormal." The old gang has scattered in many directions–Dunleavy becoming a caricature at the Post, Brennan striking gold again as producer of Judge Judy’s show, Gordon Elliott still flogging his doorknocker routine (now for the Food Network). Kearns believes they’ve had a lasting impact in "opening a window on America…opening up what we’re allowed to cover in America."

For better or worse, he’s clearly right.