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.

Tuesday, November 02, 1999

Tabloid Baby author revealed

Burt Kearns, author of Tabloid Baby

Publisher: Celebrity Books (October 1999)
ISBN-10: 1580291074
ISBN-13: 978-1580291071