There's no doubt about it. Celebrity is the media's top priority.
Michael Jackson's June 25 death overshadowed all other news for almost two weeks.
Nightly news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC featured at least one story each night about Jackson since his death. More than half of those broadcasts aired since June 25 lead with a story about Jackson. A Pew poll found cable news devoted 93 percent of its coverage to Jackson on June 25 and 26. The broadcast networks joined CNN, MSNBC and Fox News in airing Jackson's July 7 memorial from Los Angeles' StaplesCenter.
Despite a separate Pew poll that found 64 percent of people believe there was too much coverage of Jackson, the media continue to hit the story hard. CNN's Don Lemon even labeled critics of the coverage “elitist,” and said, “Michael Jackson is an accidental civil rights leader, an accidental pioneer. He broke ground and barriers in so many different realms in artistry, in pictures, in movies, in music, you name it. So, no, I don't think it's overkill.”
Networks overlooked topics that truly impact American families such as health care reform, North Korea's nuclear weapons and the troop withdrawal from Iraq in favor of continued Jackson coverage.
As early as June 28, just three days after Jackson's death, Washington Post media reporter and host of CNN's “Reliable Sources” Howie Kurtz asked, “Is this now going to be the new Anna Nicole Smith case, where the media are going to spend days and weeks and months, who knows, reporting on the cause of death, the drugs, who gets custody of the three kids, what happens to the money? Is this just not going to go away?”
As the MRC noted, the July 6 broadcast evening news programs – 11 days after Jackson died – dedicated less than one minute of combined airtime to the death of seven soldiers in Afghanistan while Jackson received nearly 19 minutes of airtime. ABC even cut short an interview with its favorite rock-star politician, President Obama, during the July 7 “Good Morning America” for more Jackson coverage. ABC also bumped a June 26 John Stossel report on health care to air a special on Jackson.
The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that news outlets devoted 60 percent of their coverage to Jackson on June 25 and June 26. The MRC reported that the June 26 evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC devoted 95 percent of airtime to Jackson, despite the House passage of cap-and-trade legislation earlier that day.
As pop culture professor Robert Thompson of SyracuseUniversity pointed out during CNN's July 2 “Lou Dobbs” broadcast, “All of this coverage is very little news. I mean, there's really one piece of data so far – Michael Jackson died at the age of 50. The rest of is, so far, is speculation, retrospectives, reactions of people. And this is an awful lot of coverage for a very, very little bit of information.”
Defense of Coverage
Many journalists, however, did not view the Jackson coverage as excessive and defended it many ways.
Carlos Diaz, an “Extra” correspondent, told CNN's Kurtz on June 28 that the new standard of journalism is “that you cater to what everyone is talking about…and everyone on Thursday [June 25], everyone was talking about Michael Jackson's death.”
Others cited ratings as the reason to continue with the Jackson story. Kurtz noted that on June 25, the day Jackson died, CNN's ratings shot up 937 percent. MSNBC's jumped 330 percent and Fox News' increased 243 percent. Sharon Waxman, former Washington Post and New York Times entertainment reporter, agreed, and told Kurtz on July 5, “This is a ratings story, this is about business. And it's an easy decision for every news network to make.”
Fox News' Jon Scott asked Marissa Guthrie, programming editor of Broadcasting and Cable, on the July 4 “Newswatch” if the “media feeding frenzy” over Jackson's death was “one more way for the media to ring money out of him?”
Waxman offered another theory as to why the media obsessed over the details of Jackson's death – their own guilt for their coverage of his life. “We've spent a lot of years beating up on Michael Jackson, and I was – I covered them both – many aspects of beating up on him, business-wise, and the child molestation thing,” she stated. “And what I think we're realizing in all of this is hey, he was actually a good – a nice person. And I can't say how many people … I think there is a sense in the media of feeling badly, of regret in the Michael Jackson – honestly there is a little bit of that haze of expiation in gee, he was kind of fantastic.”
Only the media would give the rationale of “we covered Jackson too harshly” as an explanation for digging into every inconsequential detail about his death.
What are They Celebrating?
There's no doubt that Jackson was a fantastic entertainer. It's one thing to celebrate his musical achievements – 13 solo number one hits, 750 million albums sold and helping integrate MTV – but there's also no doubt that he lived a troubled life manifested in his bizarre lifestyle. To simply label him “fantastic” or to call him just “a good – a nice person” is to avoid some uncomfortable, but very important, facts.
Jackson was repeatedly accused of child molestation, and settled one suit out of court for $22 million. Numerous friends, acquaintances and employees have reported serious drug abuse (which may have in fact killed Jackson.) His serial plastic surgeries and other strange appearance alterations amounted to self-mutilation. Despite vast intellectual and real property holdings and lucrative revenue streams, Jackson died $400 million in debt, owing to a decadent, sumptuous and irresponsible lifestyle that indulged every whim.
ABC's Claire Shipman painted Jackson as an innocent victim of circumstance in her July 6 “Good Morning America” report about the deaths of pop icons. She said of the public mourning that follows the death of a celebrity, “We choose to gather and remember. We're also looking for comfort. If stars like these can be extinguished so unexpectedly what does that say about our own mortality?”
If the media coverage of Jackson's death is any indication, his mortality says that celebrity – and especially popularity with the media themselves – allows even those with seriously clouded reputations to be lavished with adulation at their deaths.