News Media Hit Seattle Ready To Buy Stories After Cobain's Death

The chronicling of Kurt Cobain manifests just about everything traditionalists say is wrong with the media: checkbook journalism, obsession with celebrity tragedy, stampede reporting and the blurring of fact and hearsay.

This is a story that feeds on the feeding frenzy, which got under way in earnest yesterday.

Gary Smith, who said he lives in Lynnwood, was staying close to his cellular phone. He is the security-system electrician who discovered the body of Cobain, the lead singer of the Seattle-based rock band Nirvana, at Cobain's home near Lake Washington in Seattle on Friday morning. Cobain apparently died of a self-inflicted shotgun blast.

" `A Current Affair' offered $1,500 and told me not to talk to anybody else," Smith said. "I'm going to be meeting with them. Just right now I'm kind of waiting to see what other magazines, or the rest of the entertainment industry, wants" in terms of deals.

Smith said he's never been a news celebrity before and has gotten no advice on how to handle the expected crush of offers for his exclusive account.

But the value of his account might be diminished by the fact Smith talked to local TV stations and CNN at the scene Friday - for free - saying it was really quite simple: He saw the body through a window, called police and later read a few words of Cobain's apparent suicide note.

So what more does he know that is worth $1,500?

We would have asked. But unless you're paying, Smith isn't real interested in chatting.

"I don't want to talk about this anymore," he said. Click. Welcome to checkbook journalism.

Over the winter you might have looked at the crusading coverage of felonious Olympic skater Tonya Harding in Portland and shaken your head.

Oregon can have that kind of notoriety - Tonya, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the neo-Nazi trial.

Recent Seattle history, meanwhile, is filled with national and world media attention largely due to noble newsworthiness: a summit of Pacific Rim leaders in November, yesterday's roll-out of the Boeing 777 jetliner, Microsoft's digital-future visions, Ken Griffey Jr.

But the apparent suicide of Cobain promises to make this city more like Tonya Town than a Pacific Century world capital.

They're all here or arriving any hour now: "A Current Affair," "Inside Edition," "Hard Copy," NBC and MTV Generation-X reporter Tabitha Soren, two Rolling Stone writers, a producer for NBC's "First Person" newsmagazine, People magazine's Johnny Dodd, reporter Bonnie Robinson of the Globe newspaper - "and not the one in Boston," she says - to name a few.

"When I came home yesterday (Friday), there were 50 people in my driveway," said a neighbor of Cobain's on affluent Lake Washington Boulevard who wouldn't give her name.

The Seattle stations, CNN and Fox television were all broadcasting live this weekend. Two satellite-uplink trucks were parked on the narrow street Friday.

"It was a zoo," the neighbor said.

Off-duty Seattle police officers now guard her property, asking photographers not to block the driveway with their tripods. Private security guards man the perimeter of the Cobain property.

A CNN crew Friday asked the neighbor whether they could photograph the Cobain home from her upstairs window, she said, which has a clear view of the detached garage where Cobain was found.

While no one has been rude to her, "I think they've really been cruel to the family," the woman said of the media's persistence.

Yesterday there was still a trickle of national reporters and photographers - outnumbering the few curious Nirvana fans - who had parachuted into town and came first to size up the Cobain house, which is hidden behind tall bushes at the end of a winding driveway, before heading off in search of electrician Smith and Seattle's grunge-music scene.

More than just sensational news - even The New York Times put it on the front page - the Cobain story has all the ingredients to feed brave new media starving for exclusivity, and willing to pay for it, in a lucrative, competitive infotainment business.

The way it's going, it's only a matter of time before only the richest media moguls will be able to afford to do even straightforward journalism. That's not entirely the fault of media. It takes two to make a deal.

Electrician Smith didn't take long to figure out what he had. And Gene Maddox, the man cleared last week by prosecutors after he shot and killed an intruding teenager at his Innis Arden home last month, said he wouldn't tell his version of events for less than $3,000. Yesterday Maddox declined to say whether he's had any offers.

In addition to introducing Seattle to the phenomenon of a modern tabloid invasion, the Cobain story is a turning point of another sort. Music radio stations in Seattle, the city many regard as the center of the rock universe, suddenly found themselves doing journalism instead of selling music and commercials.

About an hour after Smith found and reported Cobain's body, a worker for the same company who had heard what had happened at the Cobain residence called album-rock station KXRX-FM (96.5).

"I got to tell you, we get calls like that once a month, and we say, `Sure, sure,' " said disc jockey Marty Riemer, who was filling in for vacationing Robin Erickson and John Maynard during the morning show.

But the caller, said Riemer, insisted: "Man, this is legit, this happened, an electrician for my company went to work at Cobain's house and found him."

"We went on at about 9:41," Riemer said, "basically saying Seattle police confirmed they dispatched a unit investigating a body at the home." KXRX had a scoop.

"We felt pretty confident the information was accurate, but then how much do you reveal when you know Cobain's family could be listening or someone who knows him could be listening?" That's a routine journalistic dilemma, but unusual for stations that give short shrift to news and employ no real working journalists.

While KXRX showed caution, modern-rock competitor KNDD-FM (107.7) Friday dispensed emotion-filled rumor. DJ Marco Collins broadcast unsubstantiated reports about Cobain's last days, bolstered only by the admonishment that "this is only what we're hearing."

As sources multiply and standards of prudence change in the information age, listeners, viewers and readers can't take credibility for granted, whether the information is free or paid-for. People in places like Portland know that very well. Now we do, too.