Yesterday’s solemn, over-the-top, wall-to-wall, commercial free coverage of Michael Jackson's death left me wondering if Archduke Ferdinand had been shot a second time.
Yes, Jackson once was an entertainment and music genius but he hadn’t done anything in years, yes, and his parents doomed him in childhood to a miserable life. But Prince is a music and show biz genius, too, yet he keeps his private peccadilloes private. And, besides, many of us had parents who doomed us as kids to something or another awful in adulthood.
Somehow, though, we didn't end up with totally unhealthy and unnatural – possibly illegal – attachments to young boys that Jackson thought was just fine. Nor did we dangle our own newborn by the ankles over a hotel balcony, constantly sponge off of other people in recent years because we couldn't afford our lifestyle, show up one day for a trial wearing pajama bottoms, become addicted to prescription medicines and rely on thugs from the Nation of Islam for security.
We didn’t end up wack-o Jack-o.
As news helicopters kept circling the UCLA Medical Center where Jackson died, one anchor after another talked about the “crowd” gathered outside the hospital to pay tribute.
First of all, there were maybe 200 people at any one time, hardly a crowd. In Los Angeles, a city of 3.8-million, you can get 200 people who are silly enough to worship the famous to show up for a garage door opening if it somehow involves a celebrity.
Second, the fact that he was quite possibly a pedophile was conveniently overlooked in yesterday’s “All Jack-O All The Time” coverage: The jury found Jackson not guilty, which doesn’t always mean innocent. Just ask former Sen. Ted Stevens. In Jackson’s case, the DA didn’t prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Fine. In our system he wasn’t legally guilty and I accept the fact. But let’s not forget that, in the early-to-mid 1990s, it was widely reported that Jackson paid untold millions to another family over the same issue involving their young son and, in return, the parents withdrew charges they’d filed against him.
I’m not the first to note that America has become a culture obsessed by a macabre fascination with the infamous.
In the past 10 days alone, along with Jackson’s death we’ve been treated ad nauseum to coverage of tearful admissions of infidelity by Sen. David Vitter and Gov. Mark Sanford – with interest in Sanford multiplied by his colorful disappearance for five days followed by his convoluted, sniveling story of finding true, meaningful love in Argentina, of all places. Add widespread coverage of Ryan O’Neil saying that Farah Fawcett finally agreed to marry him as she lay days away from death, the marital traumas of Jon and Kate, and probably something about another trailer trash relative in the goofy Palin family, and cable news had no time left yesterday to give much coverage to, oh, Pres. Obama’s morning announcement on the energy bill moving through the House or following up on his news conference compromise with himself about the absolute need for a public option in health care reform.
The problem is ubiquitous.
Even the normally sober Juan Cole’s blog Friday morning was devoted to why Jackson was popular in the Middle East. At least Paul Krugman asked if any readers remembered Wilbur Mills and his “Argentine firecracker” in explaining that he wasn’t going to comment on the Sanford debacle.
As absurd as is the Jackson coverage, I’m realistic enough to know that something like the sudden death of a notorious celebrity draws viewers. Even Walter Cronkite and Ed Murrow recognized that fact. But they kept it in perspective, devoting the time the story deserved: A brief introduction, a quickly assembled bio, perhaps a clip of another celebrity saying how sad it all is, and that was that.
Still, I can’t help feel unsettled when Keith Olbermann is on air for hours, garbed Murrow-like in a vest and shirtsleeves as if telegraphing that Something Momentous Is Being Reported Here, talking gravely about what essentially is an Entertainment Tonight story.
It’s a shame when anyone dies prematurely. But it’s even more of a shame when the death is treated by the media as a major event, worthy of the kind of coverage given a state funeral or outbreak of war. When did we lose our perspective?
*When I was young, oh so much younger than today, I believed that the United States would become completely unhinged at some point in my lifetime. This...