Paul Erickson, an Arlington media lawyer, was a virgin when it came to tabloid television. Then he started representing John Bobbitt.

"They call and start throwing cash and gifts at you, but they're paranoid about ever revealing that they're doing it," he says. "Some were simply too sleazy to talk to on the phone. I have been offered cash bribes to break contracts we've had with existing shows."

Erickson found himself in a bidding war while setting up paid interviews for the man with the world's most famous reattached organ. "They all hate each other," he says of the programs. "They tell you how everyone else is scum except them."

The Bobbitt case is merely the latest manifestation of cash register journalism, an increasingly competitive environment in which news is sold, optioned and merchandised for sizable sums. The rise of tabloid TV has transformed the culture of reporting into a profit-driven enterprise that sometimes leaves traditional news organizations in the dust. It also turns celebrities into lucrative targets, a complaint leveled Tuesday by Michael Jackson's attorneys.

Bobbitt, while rebuffing most press inquiries, sold two interviews to the show "American Journal." Joey Buttafuoco, whose affair with 16-year-old Amy Fisher spawned three quickie TV movies, was recently paid to appear with his wife on "A Current Affair." David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" mass murderer, did "Inside Edition" after the program paid the producer who arranged the interview.

"They're paying big, big money for exclusive interviews," says Iain Calder, editor in chief of the National Enquirer, which bought exclusive rights to photograph the Donald Trump-Marla Maples wedding. "They don't think twice about paying 30 or 40 grand." The Buttafuoco interviews were reported to cost $500,000, although insiders say such figures are wildly exaggerated.

This thriving tabloid culture has erased the old definitions of news: Tawdry stories about celebrities are no longer confined to the supermarket papers.

The initial allegations of child abuse against Jackson drew heavy coverage from the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post and made the cover of Newsweek. This, in turn, brought forth a number of Jackson aides and hangers-on with palms outstretched. Blanca Francia, Jackson's former maid, sold her story to "Hard Copy" and was denounced by the pop star's camp as a "paid witness."

Jackson's attorneys said in a statement that he "has been subjected to an unprecedented media feeding frenzy. ... The tabloid press has shown an insatiable thirst for anything negative and has paid huge sums of money to people who have little or no information and who barely knew Michael Jackson."

To be sure, elite news organizations have long sniffed that paying for information is a disreputable practice. But Calder says the conventional wisdom may be shifting. A decade ago, he says, "it was an unpopular thing to do. People would call us and say, 'This is awful journalism.' I think it's become more accepted. The younger journalists have grown up with the idea that television does it. '60 Minutes' has done it on occasion. The mainstream press has moved closer to the Enquirer."

What is derisively called "checkbook journalism" was once rare enough among American news organizations that the payments themselves became news. In 1975, CBS stunned polite journalistic society by paying former Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman $25,000 for a "60 Minutes" interview, and Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy $15,000. Two years later, David Frost upped the ante dramatically when he paid Richard Nixon $600,000 for a series of TV interviews.

But since the 1986 debut of "A Current Affair," owned by Rupert Murdoch, spawned a host of imitators, the pay-to-play arena has become far more crowded.

New York Post reporter Bill Hoffmann recalls flying to Bermuda in 1989 to try to interview Janet Culver, who had miraculously survived 14 days at sea in a rubber raft. But when he arrived at the hospital, Hoffmann was told that People magazine had bought exclusive rights to her story for $10,000.

"She wouldn't talk," says Hoffmann, who watched in frustration as People published a cover story under Culver's byline. "If someone paid me 10 grand, I wouldn't talk either."

While most American newspapers and newsmagazines still have firm rules against paying for news, they routinely treat sources to expensive lunches and shell out large sums for book excerpts. Television stations regularly pay ordinary citizens for videotape (such as the famous Rodney King beating footage, which sold for $500). Network entertainment divisions buy up story rights for docudramas. Why, then, should the peddling of a news story raise an ethical red flag?

"Everyone's entitled to exploit their intellectual property," says Everette Dennis, director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University. "The only reason they're likely to talk to newspapers free is to get publicity to help them exploit their story. It may be undesirable and unsavory, but if they want to make a buck, they have the right" to ask for money.

The problem is that paying the subjects of news stories -- a practice essentially invented by the London tabloids -- raises questions about their credibility. When Gennifer Flowers told the world she had been Bill Clinton's mistress, news accounts invariably stressed that she sold her tale to the Star tabloid for an estimated $100,000.

"If someone says they did something with somebody and can prove it, we'll pay," says Star Editor Richard Kaplan. "I'd much prefer not to for ethical reasons and budget reasons, so that the story is not in any way tainted by the fact that you're paying for it. I'm sure if we'd gotten the Gennifer Flowers story without any exchange of money, the whole cash-for-trash line would have been rendered obsolete."

Jim Gaines, now managing editor of Time, regrets one episode of news-buying when he ran People. During the Gary Hart-Donna Rice uproar, People paid Rice's friend Lynn Armandt for her pictures and story.

"It was a mistake," Gaines says. "I came to be filled with suspicion {about Armandt's motives}. I felt I and the magazine had been badly used."

People Managing Editor Landon Jones says he ended the practice of paying for stories when he took over four years ago. "People come to us every single week and say I have a great story about Michael Jackson or whatever and my client wants to be paid," he says. "They're shopping around. The well has been poisoned."

When Lorena Bobbitt went on trial in Manassas this month for cutting off her husband's penis, the event drew 200 reporters from around the world, some of them prowling the courthouse corridors with cash offers.

"My agent won't let me say anything," John Bobbitt told reporters after his wife was acquitted last Friday of malicious wounding. "American Journal" aired its second exclusive interview with him Tuesday, with Bobbitt declaring himself "shocked" by the verdict and "scarred for life."

Guests on such programs are rarely subjected to withering cross-examination. In an earlier interview after he was cleared of marital assault, Bobbitt told "American Journal": "We had sex a lot, I mean a lot. In the four years we were married, probably 900 times."

Erickson says Bobbitt has done interviews with Jenny Jones, Howard Stern, NBC's "Now" and The New Yorker, among others, and that most of these sessions were unpaid (although Bobbitt raised $260,000 from appeals on a Stern cable special). Erickson says his client is about to embark on a 10-city radio tour and is weighing invitations from Australia and Japan, along with book and movie offers.

"John Bobbitt didn't choose the situation he was placed in," he says. "To begrudge him the opportunity to recover some of his medical and legal expenses is just a cheap shot."

Bobbitt has refused all newspaper interviews (except for one with USA Today) because he suffers from "attention deficit disorder" and is not intelligent enough to fence with agressive reporters, Erickson says. While Bobbitt sounds all right on camera, "he can't understand compound questions. He couldn't get through a {print} interview. He'd be ripped apart."

Erickson says he chose "American Journal" after concluding that "they'd do it as a straight news piece -- no reenactments, no hokey weird-angle stuff."

John Tomlin, co-executive producer of "American Journal" and "Inside Edition," says his reporters are not running around waving wads of cash.

"You have to have a senior member of the staff make the decision, and you do it on rare occasions," he says. "The important thing to me is I can sleep at night. I don't believe you should pay people who commit crimes for their stories." In the "Son of Sam" interviews, "I believe no money went to Berkowitz or I wouldn't have done it."

The buying and selling of interviews has become almost routine in high-profile criminal cases. At the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, defense lawyers shredded the credibility of a key witness, Anne Mercer, after she acknowledged she had been paid $40,000 to appear on "A Current Affair." In the Rodney King beating, one police officer convicted in the case accepted $10,000 to appear on "A Current Affair," while another took $25,000 to do "Donahue."

"These television shows are so free and loose with their money," says Hoffmann. "They basically hand over fistfuls of cash. I'm not talking about checks; these reporters carry around cash. Is that real journalism? I don't know. I think people tend to sweeten their stories for 10 grand."

Tomlin bristles at the holier-than-thou attitude of his network competitors. "One of the biggest lies in network television is 'we don't pay for stories,' " he says. "They will pay for so-called consultants to give them stories."

Some programs skirt the rules by paying "for weekends in New York, first-class air travel, a new coat," Erickson says. "You get to the hotel and they give you $500 a day for 'food' and they don't care what you do with the money. These are huge inducements to someone from a trailer park who's popping open his second can of Schlitz."