Michael Jackson’s Death Sends the Media Over the Edge

Big cultural figure? Yes. Worth wall-to-wall coverage? No.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The world seems divided today between people who view Michael Jackson's death as an all-consuming, world-stopping Event and those who, while acknowledging that yes, he was talented and famous, wonder whether there might be other news going on in the world that is worth taking note of. As we approach hour 24 of the PM (Post-Michael) Era, it is clear that the people running the 24-hour "news" networks seem to be ecstatically smoking, as Allahpundit Tweets it, the " Jacko Cracko." (Excepting when one of them showed newly released security camera video of...Mark Sanford walking through an airport. Seriously.) I'm in the other camp.

Yes, Michael Jackson was a tremendously talented musical performer; almost impossibly, his fame may have exceeded even the reach of that talent, seeming to grow as much for every new (and often creepy) revelation about his personal life and lifestyle as about his music. Watching the endless Jackson-loop on the three cable "news" channels today, seeing shots of young, black Jackson and older, post-racial Jackson, is a jarring reminder of his life arc and, one supposes, the perils of success. Some people live long enough to suffer the ravages of age; he lived long enough to suffer the ravages of being Michael Jackson. It's kind of like an updated version of the journey from young, slick Elvis to older, portly, white jumpsuit Elvis—all we lack is a photo of George W. Bush deputizing Michael Jackson in the drug wars.

The coverage his death is receiving is not in proportion to its news value. As a friend of mine opined on Facebook last night, "it's amazing that with all the issues confronting our country, the top four stories on the NY Times website are about Michael Jackson. Good lord, get some perspective national media—voyeurism is rapidly replacing journalism." Indeed. Another friend: "Somebody please make the 24-7 Michael Jackson coverage stop. Among the more important things going on: Iran, healthcare reform, climate change legislation, pulling out of Iraq..." I think Jonah Goldberg has it about right today. ( I ' ll take "sentences I never thought I' d type" for five hundred please, Alex.) He notes that word invariably used to describe the late musician—"icon"—is a loaded term meaning "religious symbol deserving of reverence and adoration," which is pretty much how he is being treated.

Michael Jackson had many accomplishments. But the press is sanctifying him because he was famous, deservedly so to be sure, but not because he was good. So much of the coverage seems to miss this fundamental point, as if being famous made him good.