SANTA MARIA, Calif. — As night falls on the plains of Africa, their paths cross: the lion, the zebra, predator and prey, all making their way to the same watering holes.
So it is in the hills of Santa Maria, Calif., these days, where, as the sun dips behind the live oaks, friend and foe in the Jackson case head for the same bars and bistros, sometimes eyeing each other warily at surprisingly close range.
In one small restaurant Tuesday night, the folks from ABC were poring over the same menu as the team from NBC, not to mention the chap across the way from the BBC. Meanwhile the man on a first-name basis with Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon could swear those were associates of Michael Jackson a couple of tables down.
One journalist present realized that if something had happened in the case at that moment, say Michael Jackson had made another dash to the hospital, the wireless devices would have sounded one by one and the checks hurriedly paid until the restaurant was left virtually empty.
It’s inevitable that this should happen in a small community like Santa Maria, nestled in the farming country of California’s Central Coast, about a three-hour drive from Los Angeles. Many players in the case are here, along with media from some two dozen countries, and there are only so many places to stay or have dinner. As the jury deliberations stretch on, the chances for these encounters increase.
Sometimes, at the dinner table, or over a glass of wine, there are fierce debates. Those convinced of guilt or innocence have been known to clash between courses. Often, teams of network producers change the subject when their competitors amble by, so as not to give up trade secrets. “How many people ya got here,” a journalist for one news organization asks another in a restaurant. “Gee, wow, Ida know,” the competitor says, guarding the movement of troops with the zeal of a military censor.
But other times, sworn competitors break bread together. Several times, gaggles of reporters have crowded around a table, telling stories, making each other laugh, trying to pick up a tip or two on the case without giving anything away. And as tough as the media battle is, courtesies both professional and personal abound. A reporter who has to step away to file a story can usually rely on a colleague for a briefing on what he or she missed. How’s the new baby, the guy from CBS asked the fellow from NBC.
Where there's food, there are journalists
Members of the press corps have even developed a Web site, eatmj.com, which offers restaurant reviews contributed by journalists who’ve sampled area eateries.
It might surprise some in the public that a number of people in the press corps and on wildly different sides of the Jackson case chat amiably with each other, have each other’s phone numbers programmed into their cell phones, trade news not only about the case but also about husbands and wives, sons and daughters, vacation plans and the rest of the stuff of life outside the Jackson trial. They might push hard for the exclusive from a source, but some at least genuinely like and respect each other.
Of course, some truly despise each other, but even they manage to be civil most of the time.
And now they all wait. Many have done it before, of course. So many lawyers and journalists have been through this “verdict watch” drill, pacing, guessing, and speculating, some forced to write about each other while they wait for the real news: has the jury reached a verdict, and what is it?
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For that moment of truth, detailed plans have been laid. Strategies considered. Assignments meted out. Cables and antennas and cameras placed. To avoid the debacle surrounding the Martha Stewart verdict, when journalists ran from court waving scarves, creating mass confusion about the verdict, the judge in the Jackson case has allowed a live audio feed from the courtroom of the reading of the verdicts.
If the jury is actually able to reach a verdict.
Until that happens, the vigil will continue. Journalists actually stand outside at the end of the day, radios in hand, watching as the vans that carry the jurors are moved into position, the reporters sending bulletins repeated worldwide when the vans finally leave the courthouse.
It’s when the jurors leave the building that the light starts to turn golden, and the wind starts to move in the tall grass, and predator and prey alike plod together, as they always do, toward the watering hole.
Adam Gorfain is the Senior Editorial Producer of NBC’s coverage of the Jackson case.
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