As jury selection begins today in Michael Jackson’s trial on child-molestation charges, journalists are concerned about an arrangement that could require television stations and newspapers to pay a total of as much as $800,000 to Santa Barbara County to defray the costs of the trial, reports the Los Angele Times. Some journalists say the payments far exceed what other jurisdictions have charged and smack of “pay-to-play journalism.” More ominous, they said, is a pattern in which local officials overseeing high-publicity cases chip away at the long-established principle of free access to public courtrooms.
County officials – facing a trial expected to cost millions of dollars – respond that they are only trying to recoup extraordinary costs for accommodating an international media horde. Otherwise, local taxpayers would get stuck with the bill. “We feel strongly that we should not be paying a media tax, that there is a real danger to 1st Amendment principles,” said Ted Boutrous, a lawyer representing many news outlets. “We come roaring into these small towns, and I think it just looks to them like one big thundering herd. And, to them, one with very deep pockets,” said Jennifer Siebens, West Coast bureau chief for CBS News. “We are not deadbeats. We will pay our share. But we want to know what the real costs are.” An alliance of newspapers and television broadcasters agreed to pay a total of $7,500 a day to cover Jackson, but the arrangement has been informal.