DEATH IS said to trigger five stages of grief. In the wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson since his death, media members can add two more stages to their list: “tortured logic” and “alibis.”
Since his death, Jackson has often been portrayed as a beloved icon, much the way Princess Diana somehow became our princess in the wake of her premature demise. As networks committed to broadcasting Tuesday’s memorial tribute live, hopes of perspective and proportionality quickly dimmed.
Helicopters hovered above the memorial procession to Staples Center, adding yet another slow-speed chase to our visual memory.
As for the service itself, Motown founder Berry Gordy fleetingly acknowledged that Jackson had made “questionable decisions” in his life while lauding the singer’s talent. Songs and tributes poured out — some emotional, others defiant, many self-indulgent.
But media organizations are also making questionable decisions. Having committed themselves to overkill regarding all things Jackson, news outlets have created narratives justifying their gluttony.
Some of the media fascination is understandable. Since he was “arguably the weirdest superstar in history,” wrote Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, “you’d have to be brain dead not to be interested” in the Jackson story.
The problem is that “interesting” alone isn’t enough to merit this frenzy. So another adjective — “important” — must be utilized as a rationalization for pandering to the audience’s most prurient impulses.
Let’s be honest: To many, what set Jackson apart from other extremely talented entertainers were his much-discussed eccentricities and the criminal charges brought against him. At worst, Jackson might have engaged in inappropriate, perhaps illegal behavior with young boys; at best, he exhibited a troubling lack of judgment that left him vulnerable to such allegations.
That’s hardly a matter to be brushed aside. Yet there was CNN’s Don Lemon on “Reliable Sources,” making this extraordinary statement to dismiss as “elitist” anybody second-guessing the wall-to-wall coverage: “Michael Jackson twice — well, once, I should say, he was acquitted of child molestation. The other time it was settled out of court. … And if you talk to people who were involved in those cases, they don’t believe that he did it. So let’s put that aside.”
For some reason, this brought to mind that joke in “The Addams Family” movie when Gomez is told that he’s a “lady-killer” and brightly chirps, “Acquitted!”
Inevitably, in the run-up to the memorial, the tone of the TV coverage hewed closer to adulation than anything approaching dispassionate analysis, and Tuesday’s event continued the pattern. CBS’ Katie Couric, for example, let her guests advance the shaky proposition that Jackson was a civil-rights pioneer.
On Fox News Channel, Shepard Smith did attempt to convey the absurdity of it all but found it difficult to arch that eyebrow too high — coming, as his comments did, amid live reports from correspondents obsessing over every lurch of Jackson’s motorcade.
SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER? Nobody would or should expect the media to ignore this kind of story. But the powers that be could begin by coming clean about their priorities instead of elevating Michael Jackson to sainthood in order to validate their actions.
The various anchors should admit to being caught up in a competitive melee that’s effectively blotted out more important news.
Don’t inflate the subject’s significance simply to erase or obscure your journalistic misdemeanors. Tell the audience you can’t resist freak shows because, frankly, you suspect many of them can’t, either. And create at least some space for news that directly touches people’s lives as soon as possible.
Instead, the major media’s stance is a bit like “The Hangover” — wanton gluttony, followed by amnesia.
For major news outlets wondering how to recognize symptoms of this condition, here’s a rule of thumb: Whenever E! crews are sitting beside you, and you’re getting most of your news tips from TMZ, you are perhaps directing your shrinking resources in a dubious direction.
On “Good Morning America,” it fell to poor Claire Shipman on Monday to report on “How America mourns its legends.” She spoke of John Lennon and Elvis Presley, saying such deaths represent “the end of an innocence, or an era.”
Sorry, but in terms of the Jackson coverage, it’s a little late for recapturing innocence. Right now, we’re just looking for an exit.