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Is prime time TV too coarse? Rapist's video is latest clue

Friday, February 21, 2003

By Tracy Wilson, Brian Lowry and Elizabeth Jensen, Los Angeles Times

CBS aired an excerpt Wednesday night of videotapes made by convicted rapist Andrew Luster of his sexual encounters with drugged victims, provoking anger from victims' families and fueling the latest debate over the ethics and legality of increasingly coarse prime time TV programs.

The broadcast came as the networks' sweeps season, which ends Wednesday, is building to a salacious, true-crime flourish. Critics say the networks are engaging in a feeding frenzy for celebrity-based crime stories at a time when the news divisions' energies are needed for the possibility of war in the Persian Gulf.

In addition to the Luster broadcast on "48 Hours Investigates," television has been awash in Michael Jackson's exploits. And next week, ABC's jailhouse interview with murder suspect Robert Blake is scheduled to air opposite CBS' exclusive with "Preppy Murderer" Robert Chambers.

CBS' decision to air excerpts of Luster's tapes angered relatives of some of his victims. Two victims cooperated with the broadcast but were unaware that the network had copies of the tapes.

"I think it is appalling," said the mother of one victim who cooperated. The mother spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid identifying her daughter.

"These girls have been through enough. If [the news crew] honestly found these tapes, they should have turned them over to the district attorney's office and not used them for their TV ratings."

Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of "48 Hours," acknowledged that the Luster tapes are graphic but insisted the network was being "extremely judicious in what we are showing," focusing not on the women's faces or on sex acts but on what Luster is saying.

"We were extremely conscious of the privacy issues involved and have taken great pains not to show anything that would embarrass any of the girls," said Betsy West, CBS News' senior vice president of prime time. She added that despite the pressure of February sweeps, "We would never do anything to compromise our journalistic integrity."

The show included a tape of Luster sitting on a bed with a woman lying behind him, facing away from the camera. As the camera watches, Luster stands up and leans over the bed, touching the back of the woman's upper leg and pulling up her skirt. The video clip ends in mid-motion.

"I dream about this. A strawberry blond, beautiful girl passed out on my bed and basically there to do whatever I choose," he says on the tape.

Luster, the great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor, videotaped himself raping, fondling and in one case sodomizing unconscious women at his beach home in Mussel Shoals in 1996 and 1997. Detectives found the tapes during a search of the house in July 2000 after a University of California, Santa Barbara, student reported that he had raped her there. He asserted that the women had all agreed to have sex with him and be recorded.

He was convicted last month on 86 criminal counts after fleeing on $1 million bail during a trial recess and was sentenced Tuesday to 124 years in prison. He remains a fugitive.

The tapes, which were used as evidence in his trial, were restricted from public viewing by a court order. After Luster fled, they were apparently obtained by his mother, who passed them to CBS. But how Luster had them in his possession remains unclear.

Asked how the network justified using footage shot by a convicted rapist, Zirinsky said: "We obtained footage that was used in a court trial. Andrew Luster claimed that it was consensual; they had done drugs together. The minor amount of tape we use [was] to illustrate him and the truthfulness of what he is claiming."

Network news divisions have sought to boost ratings during sweeps, the key four-week windows in February, May and November that stations rely upon to negotiate advertising rates.

News executives said they accept the demands that sweeps place upon them, understanding that they need to serve the broader needs of the network's schedule.

Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News, said this month's influx of the famous and notorious is "more just a confluence of a lot of big 'gets' to get. They happened to fall in this time period. A couple of months ago, there weren't any; it's not that we stopped going after them."

The competition for major "gets" -- exclusive interviews with elusive newsmakers -- has nevertheless produced plenty of finger-pointing among the networks.

NBC and ABC insiders say Chambers was demanding conditions they refused to meet -- asking for restrictions on the questions that could be asked as well as trying to limit any interviews with the family of victim Jennifer Levin. He also asked for a private jet to take him and his family to the interview, and wanted the interview done "live to tape," or not edited, which tends to give an interview subject more control.

At CBS, Zirinsky said "the people we interview never control the content of our interviews. There was no question we didn't ask in this interview, no stone unturned." She added that she has not felt any pressure to do anything that violates her standards.

Still, Cinny Kennard, a onetime CBS News correspondent who is an assistant professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, contends that there has been a slide in news quality, driven in part by the fact that networks are part of huge media conglomerates that see news, in essence, not as a public trust but rather as just another consumer product.

"If you look at any of these stories, the celebrity newsperson goes and gets the star interview," she said. "It's cheap and it's easy" -- especially relative to more complicated issues, such as health care or education, which "are much more important than Michael Jackson and the way he behaves with his kids It's a continuing decline of what a news division is supposed to be."

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