Illustration © Ron Bell


Ed. Note: The term "tabloid TV" has become somewhat anachronistic, since every TV news outlet has gone "tabloid." But once upon a time there was a discernable difference between "real" news and sensationalistic reporting. This account records the efforts of a would-be Geraldo to exploit a small-town attempted-murder case. Read on and shed a tear for the loss of our nation's innocence. Again.

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It was going to be the coup, the real icing on the cake. C and I were in the Ford, like O.J. and Al, heading out to Karns to interview Rob Whedbee and get some real damned answers, some drama. There were only two problems… well, three. There were certainly no more than several, at the outside.

Victor Something-or-other (I never could figure out his last name) of American Journal–a low-rent sibling of Inside Edition–had called around 2:30 that afternoon. They needed someone to cover the Michael Frazier attempted-murder trial, known in East Tennessee as the infamous "love-triangle case." The producers in New York had decided that the trial was seedy enough to warrant national exposure. And I'd have to agree with them–Mr. Frazier was charged with first-degree attempted murder after Whedbee awoke one fateful night to find Frazier standing over his bed wearing rubber gloves and carrying a butcher knife.

To the joy of the tabloid world, Frazier was also a choir director at an area church and had been carrying on an affair with Whedbee's wife, Lisa, for over a year (she sang in the choir). What really took the case out of AAA league and into the majors was that Rob Whedbee was accused of frequently beating and raping his wife in the months prior to the alleged murder attempt–which may explain why Lisa stood in the doorway with a baseball bat while Frazier approached her husband's bed with a knife. It was an all-American story straight from the heartland and ready for syndication.

American Journal got my name from a local producer, Leslie Kurtz, who was too busy mulching her yard to sully herself with the job. After calls to 8 or 10 other producers in town, none of whom was willing to get involved with such sordidness, Leslie told them to call me. She informed Victor that I had all the basic qualifications necessary to cover a groundbreaking story like the Frazier trial: I needed the money, I had the time, and I was known to be a character of dubious moral quality. Within minutes of the phone call, I had borrowed a tie, leapt into my car, and was racing through traffic while trying to read the newspaper and figure out just what I'd gotten myself into.

Several hours of trial and error later, I was in C's Ford, hurtling through the waning day and trying to get an interview with Rob Whedbee. Things were not looking good for the interview. The first obstacle to the rising star of my career in tabloid television was that we were lost. I'd never really been in that part of Knoxville before–which wouldn't have been a serious problem except that the same held true for the camera man and driver C, though he's lived in Knoxville his entire life. C also claimed Rob Whedbee had a very mean dog.

The second big problem was that it was getting dark–just like it does every night, whether you're working on your first gig in the bare-knuckled world of tabloid TV journalism or not. Now, if I were writing an article on the infamous Knoxville "love-triangle case," darkness would be no big deal. But television is essentially a visual medium–and just the sound of me getting torn to shreds by Rob Whedbee's hypothetical deranged Shih Tzu was not acceptable to the producers in the big city. No sir, if they were going to have one of their field guys get mauled by a dog while trying to stage an ambush interview with an alleged wife beater and victim of an attempted murder plot, they wanted to be able to see it.

The third problem was that due to the lateness of the hour we were running out of time… time to get the tapes on the last flight to New York City so that the geniuses at American Journal could try to make something to feed the machine out of the roughly 10 hours of testimony, evidence shots, and interviews that C had been taping all day.

The final problem, though, was the most disturbing. And it was exacerbated by the frequent and frantic phone calls from New York that kept my pager buzzing in my pocket like a swarm of cicadas. Victor was wondering where, exactly, the drama was. Why didn't we have more interviews with people giving us juicy soundbites on the Frazier case? In fact, the answer to that problem was so unlikely, so incredibly bizarre to the world of trash TV, that I dared not mention it to Victor or Kathy in the City. They'd think I was drunk, lying… or worse, serious.

The truth was that nobody seemed all that interested in talking to us.

And worse for me was that C shared this sentiment. He'd gotten this crazy idea that there's something distasteful about rolling up to the house of a man who had just spent all day on the witness stand being accused of beating and raping his wife (and–most embarrassing for Rob, I'd imagine–wetting the bed), and yelling questions at him. In fact, C considered it downright rude, in general, to flip the headlights to bright, bludgeon the dog into submission with a tripod, and shout things like, "Mr. Whedbee, how did the trial go? How has this affected your relationship with your wife? Is it true that you wet the bed?"

Now, clearly part of C's problem was that he usually works covering NASCAR, so he's used to a much better class of people. But I had to wonder what he was thinking when he got the call from New York to cover an attempted murder trial that had all the makings of an East Tennessee Buttafuoco case: love, bed-wetting, obsession, infidelity, spouse abuse, degradation, conspiracy, rubber gloves, butcher knives, baseball bats, bad hair, and cheap suits. A veritable laundry list–no, a haiku–of the modern tabloid news story. This was our big chance to put East Tennessee on the national scummy sex and violence scandal map. With the exception of celebrity, we had it all.

And I didn't let our celebrity shortage get me down. Joey was hardly a celebrity when the whole "Long Island Lolita" story broke and now his name will be forever linked to an entire genre of low-class, media-frenzy scandals. It was my hope, my fervent belief, that I could use the impending media apotheosis of Rob Whedbee to provide the same service to East Tennessee–despite our scandal not having alliteration in its nickname and the fact that Whedbee's name bore not the slightest resemblance to a taboo sex act. I believed the scruffy little city could do it again, could become the Long Island of the middle-south… if only C and I could find Whedbee's house before the sun went down in Karns.

Looking back, though, I don't think C was trying all that hard. And worse for the story was the fact that many of the other players in the Frazier trial seemed to share C's inexplicable qualms–qualms about exploiting the mundane horror of three people's twisted and brutally exposed lives for a few bucks and a soundbite on a cheap clone of Inside Edition. Nobody we talked to seemed that interested in telling America what they thought of the trial or even the alleged event itself. One attorney I did interview said he just couldn't understand what exactly all the fuss was about. He didn't share my vision of our very own sex and murder scandal played out in all its seedy glory on national television between Andy Griffith and the evening news.

But as C and I flailed around Karns, admiring the big houses, old barns, and fields, and shaking our heads at the subdivisions going up like worms after a rain, that chance at glory faded with the sun. Our big opportunity had been blown by a bunch of tight-lipped, upright folks who wanted to mind their own business. Imagine!

I tried to explain the dearth of drama and juicy interviews to Victor and Kathy, but whenever I described people's general unwillingness to blab I felt like I was speaking in tongues. I'm sure Kathy was sitting in her office on East 76th St., wearing her DKNY black knit dress, imagining me and C in the parking lot at the Weigel's mini-mart handling snakes and playing the banjo while the story slipped away.

It was no use. I hung up the phone and watched a shirtless young man beating on the window of his girlfriend's car, screaming, "You fucked him, didn't you? Didn't you?" C went in and got us some Pepsis.

Basically, I felt that this reluctance to talk, and my failure to illicit gossip, to be un-American–as though these people didn't understand that a whole media culture, an entire economy, is as dependent on these lurid exposés as an air traffic controller is on Tagamet. These stories, violent and pornographic and pathetic, are the K-Mart of our dream life. They are cheap, shocking, senseless and endlessly fascinating. And while they may ultimately draw all of Western civilization into an illiterate and barbarous apocalypse, at least we'll have something to watch during sweeps week–"Sing Murder: The Love Triangle Case." I just hope Drew Barrymore is in it.

We did finally make it to the airport on time, but without the Whedbee interview. Without much drama at all, in fact. But it wasn't just me who suffered. It wasn't just my budding career as a trash-TV reporter that was mourned there in that darkening Weigel's parking lot, it was posterity–who knows when another opportunity like the Frazier trial will present itself? Who knows when next those words–sex, lust, murder–will rise again on their gossamer wings over the drab, close-mouthed Knoxville landscape?

Probably sooner than we think.

Originally Published: October 5, 1995 • Metro Pulse

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