The media madness surrounding the sudden death of Michael Jackson continues unabated, fueled by the public’s nearly insatiable decades-long appetite about the talented and troubled King of Pop.
One can get whiplash trying to keep up with all the latest developments. The pop star will be buried at Neverland after a public viewing and private service. No, he won't be. The former long-time nanny to his three children pumped his stomach regularly. No, she didn't. Former wife Debbie Rowe could get custody of the children. No, in his will, Mr. Jackson gave guardianship to his mother Katherine and secondarily to Motown legend Diana Ross. Jackson had a fatal heart attack after being given a shot of Demerol by Dr. Conrad Murray. No, now there are reports he may have been given the powerful anesthetic Propofol intravenously. Madonna will be part of a special tribute concert planned in London. No, she will not. Michael Jackson did not “adopt” his three children. No, he didn't need to under California law.
That was just a short list of the facts, the half-truths and the complete distortions of the truth that have made headlines since the shocking news of the star’s death was first reported last Thursday afternoon. Celebrity tabloid Web site TMZ claimed to be first to break news of the heart attack and then the actual death—and whatever claim to fame that's actually worth is debatable. (Apparently, UCLA has not rid itself of employees who sell tips about celebrities, even in the wake of the scandalous breach of Farrah Fawcett’s medical records.)
Debatable, especially since no one, meaning no one in mainstream media, believed the site as a source for the earth-shattering news that would rock the globe. The recognition of Michael Jackson's death came only when it was blasted on the Los Angeles Times website a short time later. By then, the circus had come to town -- to UCLA Medical Center, to Jackson’s rented mansion on Carolwood Drive and to the Jackson family home in Encino. It will not leave any time soon.
TMZ, run by my former colleague Harvey Levin, bowed to audience pressure to show some respect to the late performer, and the day after his death, changed all of its offensive mentions of “Jacko” to “Jackson” or “MJ.” At last check, the New York Post and other tabloids were still seemingly glorying in using the distasteful nickname (shortened from “Wacko Jacko”) that Jackson himself told interviewers he found very hurtful.
But the lowest point in the death coverage—aside from all the rumors that in the heat of the news moment turned out to be not true—was the close-up photograph of an apparently already dead Michael Jackson to which “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Insider” kept cutting. It was repulsive, completely unnecessary and just plain wrong. I’m having nightmares just thinking about its ghastliness—and the incredibly poor taste in running it, repeatedly, in primetime, or at any time. The photo belongs in a coroner’s file, not to be seen by the public.
The coverage of the Jackson story proves there is still a line between tabloids and traditional news organizations, the line between class and crass.
ABC News played up clips from the 2003 documentary “Living with Michael Jackson,” during which “Nightline” co-anchor Martin Bashir said he spent eight months with the pop star. Given his role in the piece, Bashir found it understandably difficult at times to control his emotions during 2 ½ hours on air on the night of Jackson’s death. Yet his personal experience with Jackson—whether you think he made himself too much a part of the story or not—gave the coverage added resonance and depth.
It also gave viewers the chance to re-examine some of Jackson’s eccentricities up close, including his admission to Bashir that he found sharing his bed with children to be a loving thing to do, a shocking statement which ultimately led to the second, and like the first, unproven, child molestation charge against the singer. And then there was the jaw-dropping shopping spree at a luxe store in which Jackson seemed to be buying up every ostentatious chess set, pair of candlesticks and antique lamp in sight, as Bashir trailed behind, astonished by the price tags, one of which was $85,000.
ABC also dug up a telling Barbara Walters interview of Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley during their brief marriage in the mid-1990s, and let it play.
With the Jackson story being the lead on “Nightline” every night, the show spent one inside baseball lead story on the impact of TMZ, interviewing a harried Harvey Levin, who said he wasn’t getting much sleep since the story broke.
And thinking of that appalling death photograph that should have never aired, neither am I.