Remember last November, when newspapers were flying off racks and broadcast news ratings soared because of the election of Barack Obama?

To quote those “Bruno” ads, that was so 2008.

The media remains fascinated with Obama, all right, but it still can’t resist its tabloid cravings for illicit affairs, shark attacks and freak shows such as the one represented by the later years in the life and now death of Michael Jackson.

Nearly a week after Jackson’s death, the story is still dominating cable news, network morning shows and even key newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, which seems to have seized on “owning” the Jackson story by keeping it on the front page every day as its latest bid to save the struggling Tribune-owned franchise.

Unfortunately, such coverage is better suited to TMZ.com and other outlets that are more comfortable wading through celebrity trashcans — no slap at them, by the way (as I’ve noted in an earlier post, it’s Harvey Levin’s world now; we just live in it), but a mere statement of fact.

There was “Nightline” on Tuesday, trying to cover the Jackson story without getting its hands dirty by running a puffy profile of TMZ mastermind Levin. “We use the same principles that ‘Nightline’ uses,” Levin said earnestly, but I couldn’t help thinking that the reality was a little closer to the other way around — that “Nightline” has inched closer to TMZ’s celebrity-crazed mix.

Like the shark attack mania and Chandra Levy-Gary Condit coverage that dominated the news in the summer before the Sept. 11 attacks, Jackson’s death occurred after Memorial Day, when network primetime is free and easy. In fact, it’s considerably freer and easier today than it was when the decade began, what with network ratings at historic lows, making a hasty news special look infinitely preferable to rerunning “Private Practice” or burning off episodes of “The Unusuals.” (Even leading anchors have gotten into the act, with Katie Couric fronting “Michael Jackson: Picking Up the Pieces” under the “48 Hours” banner on CBS.)

Let’s face it, documenting the unfolding events in Iran — especially with the government cracking down on journalists — and explaining the Obama administration’s effort to reform health care is complicated and difficult. And South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford simply isn’t known well enough on the national stage to compete with a personality like Jackson, though as Stephen Colbert noted earlier this week, the Republican would have been even luckier had he publicly admitted cheating on his wife one day later.

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Michael Jackson’s Media Attention
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The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism summed up the obvious with its running tally of news coverage (excerpted below), and I have a feeling the figures for the current week will be even more jaw-dropping, if sadly predictable.

Bottom line: When it comes to feeding the media beast, even Obama and Iran currently can’t lay a hand on the gloved one.

In Just Two Days, Jackson’s Passing Nearly Passes Iran in the News of the Week


With unrest in Iran and a new political scandal, the media had its pick of stories to report on the week of June 22-28. But by week’s end, the death of Michael Jackson quickly dominated the media agenda, according to a report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Early last week, ongoing attention to protests over the Iranian election continued to dominate the news narrative, and by week’s end Iran filled 19% of the newshole, making it still the No. 1 topic of the week. But much of that came early. Indeed, in the first two days of the week, nearly a third of all coverage (31%) was devoted to events in the country. But as the protest movement moved underground, and the story became harder to cover, coverage subsided. By Wednesday attention shifted to the third biggest story of the week—the controversy around South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who admitted to an extra-marital affair after having gone missing for several days (11%).

But it was the late Thursday afternoon reports that Michael Jackson had died that captured the essence of the media narrative last week. The passing of the “King of Pop” was the No. 2 story last week, accounting for 18% of the newshole. From the time of the announcement of his death through the end of day Friday, more than 28 hours (60% of news coverage studied) was dedicated to Jackson’s passing. Cable news led the coverage, devoting 93% of airtime to the icon on Thursday and Friday. The story captured 55% of online coverage and 37% of front-page newspaper coverage. All other stories vied for attention amidst the biggest celebrity story in a decade.