What if They Jailed a Reporter and Nobody Noticed?

As I write this, a judge in Chicago is on the verge of issuing an arrest warrant for an investigative reporter.

The reporter has been under this threat for more than a week, but the issue has barely been given notice in the mainstream press around the country.

Indeed, the trial in question has barely been getting coverage too.

It's strange: It's got everything: sex, a platinum star, child molestation, child porn and now, a First Amendment showdown.

But from the first, the R. Kelly trial, for any number of reasons, has been too often under the radar.

Everyone's heard about the case, of course. And R. Kelly's professional work -- his albums and singles and videos -- gets loving treatment, generally with a dismissive aside about those pesky, if un-detailed, legal problems.

But substantive coverage has been almost nonexistent over the past seven years.

Why? Well, there's the ick factor -- who wants to write about a case at the center of which is a video that shows a grown man not just having sex with but urinating into the face of a girl who police say is 13 or 14 years old?

There's the racism factor, too; one suspects that if the accusations were about Kelly's having had sex with under-aged white girls, rather than black girls from Chicago's poor neighborhoods, Dan Abrams and Nancy Grace would be all over it.

Those two aspects have come together and given Kelly a free ride -- on radio, in record stores, on tour and in the press. Even if you think you know a little bit about the case you might be surprised at the chain of events that brought us to this day.

For example: At this point there are now at least five pieces of photographic evidence of Kelly having sex with what appear to be under-aged girls. And the credible allegations of his having had sex with under-aged girls now number a full dozen. The first, of course, was his marriage with the under-aged singer Aliyaah, but allegations have dogged him for years; while the courts dithered and the press ignored the issue, Kelly racked up new victims.

I've written about the case at my blog, Hitsville, at Hitsville.org, and the Daily Swarm has been posting regular updates. Slate just sent its reporter, Josh Levin, back to Chicago to continue its coverage of the case.

But the DeRogatis angle takes things to a new level. When he's mentioned, DeRogatis is referred to as a "music critic." He is -- but in this case, he's really an investigative reporter. With a colleague, Abdon Pallasch, he broke the "It sure looks like R. Kelly is a child-sex predator" story back in 2000 -- more than a year before the tape came to light.

That story, available at the Sun-Times web site, thoroughly detailed Kelly's proclivities. Because of the pair's aggressive reporting, the tape -- long rumored to exist -- finally turned up in DeRogatis' mailbox.

It took prosecutors six years to put Kelly on trial -- that's another story -- but it finally got under way two weeks ago, and the defense has endured the ignominy of nearly a dozen people testifying they recognize Kelly and an under-aged girl on the tape. The room in which the tape was made was identified. So was a mole on Kelly's back.

Just yesterday, a woman testified to personally knowing that Kelly was having sex with the girl who appears on the tape at the center of the case.

You might say her perspective on the matter was unique: She'd had group sex with the two of them. Kelly filmed the two of them twice, she testified.

She also said Kelly toted around a duffle bag, so he could keep his home-made sex tapes -- some of them with under-age girls -- with him at all times.

So the defense is trying to derail the proceedings by having prosecution witness charged with viewing or possessing child pornography. (This is an interesting legal gambit: The defense thinks everyone involved with the case should be charged with child porn -- except the guy that made it.)

They want DeRogatis on the stand. (Readers should know that DeRogatis and I are old friends and former business partners, but I haven't talked to him about his legal problems in regard to the case.)

On the one hand, the defense has the right to ascertain the provenance of the tape.

But there are many reasons DeRogatis shouldn't have to testify:

1) The trial is about the making of the tape, sometime in the mid-1990s; Kelly is specifically on trial for making child porn. The tape had been floating around for years. What happened to it for a single day in the year 2002 is pretty irrelevant.

2) The judge has been making somewhat contradictory statements about what DeRogatis must testify about, according to the local papers following the case. He has said that the reporter doesn't have to say whether he made copies of the tape -- but he's also said DeRogatis must say what he did with it during the hours he had the tape in his possession. He's said DeRogatis does not have to testify about sources -- in deference to the state's shield law -- but has also said he wants to see his reporters notes from one of the people he interviewed.

3) The tape represents a legal minefield for DeRogatis personally. Child pornography is radioactive; the chances of DeRogatis being changed with possession of such stuff is slim, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. It is DeRogatis's option, of course, to refuse to answer certain questions on Fifth Amendment grounds, but no reporter wants to do that.

4) And in the end, since the tape was given to DeRogatis as part of his investigation into Kelly's criminal actions, it is intrinsically a part of his news-gathering process, and the reporter should not have to testify to those sorts of actions.

In the end, though, the major question is why the R. Kelly trial is not being covered by the national press. The Tribune and Sun-Times' coverage online has been ongoing, but is wildly inconsistent. Slate is the only other operation of consequence trying to worry out the issues from a position in the courtroom.

This lack of attention has made life pretty easy for Kelly in all sorts of ways. Incredibly, the judge in the case has even let Kelly tour. What in the world do people think goes on backstage after an R. Kelly concert?

Indeed, it is ironic that the only person who has spoken up for the girls is Jim DeRogatis. These days, a good sex-tape is the accoutrement of choice for any celebrity in the media eye. It's all very glamorous and even a bit continental.

But let's not forget who are on these tapes. One doubts the process was glamorous for them. Here's what DeRogatis said when asked about the tapes some years ago:

"[T]his is not Tommy Lee and Pam Anderson. It's not fun and games. This girl has the disembodied look of a rape victim and he's urinating in her mouth. It's a sickening spectacle."

As I said, you can keep up on the case at my blog, at Hitsville.org, or at the Daily Swarm.