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In The Eye Of The Hurricane

In The Eye Of The HurricaneAs the press coordinator at the Michael Jackson trial, Tufts graduate Peter Shaplen performs a balancing act in the middle of a three-ring media circus.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.24.05] With pop star Michael Jackson on trial for alleged child molestation, media from all over the world have flocked to Santa Maria, Calif., to cover the high-profile case. In the middle of the court house chaos is Tufts graduate Peter Shaplen, a media industry veteran charged with coordinating the complex and at times harried relationship between journalists and the judiciary.

"There's important stuff to be done here, no matter how scuzzy the topic," Shaplen told the Los Angeles Times.

Shaplen, whose office is a tent erected on the parking lot of the courthouse in Santa Maria, Calif., is paid jointly by ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and Court TV, but his services are extended to all members of the media covering the trial.

His responsibilities include channeling information between the courts and the reporters and working within the confines of Judge Rodney S. Melville's strict trial rules for media coverage. His day-to-day activities run the gamut from assigning reporters seats in the courtroom to billing news organizations for the "media impact fee" required by Santa Barbara County.

Shaplen also helps reporters position themselves for shots of Jackson as he moves to and from the courthouse. Though Jackson is under a gag order, Shaplen works with reporters to help them devise questions that the pop star might be able to pause for and answer.

"Michael is a performer. He is so used to walking down a red carpet, hearing 'Michael, Michael Michael,' that if we all scream he's not going to acknowledge any one voice, and we only have about eight seconds to get to him," Shaplen explained to the Times.

Those working with Shaplen have found him indispensable.

"I think what makes Peter different is that [managing the media] has gotten so complicated and he has been able to juggle everything from lost and found to helping shape media motions that go before the court," Jennifer Siebens, West Coast bureau chief for CBS, told the Times. "He handles editorial and logistical concerns. He is focused and he is very, very fair."

"Thisis the first time where I have been on a case and there has beenone person coordinating the way Peter is doing it, and it's beenvery helpful from my perspective," media attorney TheodoreJ. Boutrous Jr. told the Times. "He is on the ground,he has established very good rapport with the sheriff's staffand the court's staff."

Shaplen previously fulfilled this role during the recent trial of convicted murderer Scott Peterson, which also drew waves of reporters from all corners of the globe. His success there resulted in his recruitment for the Jackson trial.

"In the end, largely due to Peter, it went as well as it could go," Peggy Thompson, executive officer of the San Mateo County Superior Court during the Peterson trial, told the Times. "He is an astounding fellow."

Shaplen's blend of experience makes him a good fit for this type of position. A former managing editor at San Francisco's KRON-TV, both his father and grandfather were reporters in his native New York.

The Tufts graduate also understands the relationship between the court and the media.

"Media lives in swirl. We love swirl. It's what we do. Courts are all about process. And when swirl meets process, process recoils," Shaplen explained to the Times.

Despite his critical role, Shaplen has a humble perspective on his place in the grand scheme.

"[The media] would do their jobs well without me. I never lose sight of that. But I like to think that I make it better," he told the newspaper.

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