The Michael Jackson Explosion  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2009

The Michael Jackson Explosion   

Overcoverage of his death is hardly a major media sin. Online Exclusive posted 7/10/09 2:35p.m.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Has the death of Michael Jackson been seriously overcovered? Of course. But I'm having trouble working up much outrage over it.

First of all, there's no doubt that the death of the King of Pop was big news. News is not just the economic crisis and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. This was an important figure in popular culture and rock history "Thriller" is only the top-selling album of all time. And, as the reaction to his demise underscores, a figure who resonated with an awful lot of people.

While Jackomania was big everywhere, its major impact was on television. The story dominated the network morning shows and cable, and got no shortage of attention on the evening newscasts. But it hardly had a stranglehold on newspapers or the Internet.

Hungry for political developments or foreign news? There was plenty in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Politico and The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast weren't wall-to-wall Michael. I could still get my fill of Philadelphia sports developments and updates on the Piazza at Schmidts murders on philly.com.

This was a story made to order for the cable news channels. Wall-to-wall is what they do for a living. That doesn't bother me when the obsession is with an actual story, whether it's blood in the streets of Tehran or, as the New York Post so wonderfully put it, "Palin bailin' " --or the death of The Gloved One.

The problem with the cable channels is that they ALWAYS have to have a top-of-the-charts story. That leads to the ridiculous excesses on famous-for-being-famous people like Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton, on second- or third-tier sagas like Laci Peterson and JonBenet Ramsay and the missing blonde in Aruba.

I have to admit, I felt no personal connection to Michael Jackson. I like some of his music a great deal, but he's hardly in my pantheon. I watched TV coverage the night of his death, read some appreciations and moved on. I didn't watch the memorial service.

But a great many people did 31.1 million tuned in to 19 TV networks, according to Nielsen, more than three times more than watched Pope John Paul II's funeral and nearly as many as watched Princess Diana's. Many millions more watched online global Internet traffic jumped by a third during the service. A figure with that kind of impact deserves a lot of attention, whatever you thought of him.

The news media, as you might have noticed, have no shortage of problems as they struggle to survive in a wrenching era of transformation. Saturation coverage of Michael Jackson's death isn't very high on the list.

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