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The nadir of real news

Feb 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

ABC’s prime-time magazines will be all right as long as the supply of screwed-up pop stars holds out. Of course they’ll look long and hard before they find one with quite such wacky wiles as Michael Jackson. For all the weirdness on exhibit in the Jackson interview, which aired Thursday as a special edition of ABC’s “20/20,” Jackson himself emerged, pathologically perhaps, as an innocent- a pathetic, 44-year-old naive tot.
Disney’s ABC and England’s Granada TV took advantage of that innocence, and ABC managed to massacre all its competition in the process-as well as mangling poor, confused, wee-small-voiced little Michael. Beating up on him may have been a bullying thing to do, but it paid off handsomely as ABC, unaccustomed to winning even single time periods this season, won the night. The two-hour Jackson interview at 8 p.m. lured nearly 27 million viewers. Even an anticlimactic and weightless “PrimeTime Live” follow-up at 10 drew 23.5 million, and isn’t that more than the show usually gets in a month or two?
There was something faintly putrid about the whole thing. Calling it “news” is just a small first step down. With the ratings of “PrimeTime Live” having turned remarkably lousy this season, ABC recently announced the show would soon be reformatted as a kind of real-life “mystery” series, which means murders, murders and more murders, whether recent and infamous or ancient and obscure. CBS did the same thing when it turned “48 Hours” into “48 Hours Investigates.” Dan Rather realized the show was beneath his dignity and left it.
None of this is to say that the Jackson special wasn’t absolutely fascinating TV. Even so, and incredible as it may seem, “Friends” fans and “Will & Grace” devotees largely ignored it. Though ABC’s ratings were way up for the night, NBC’s and CBS’s weren’t radically down. Demographics will probably show that millions of kids of various ages who normally wouldn’t watch anything produced by (or even imported by) a news division tuned in to see their beloved and misunderstood Michael, the self-proclaimed Peter Pan, who likes to dangle babies off balconies.
In one of those nifty, it-serves-them-right ironies, telecasts of the documentary in England and America have apparently hyped sales of Jackson’s poorly selling CDs, re-awakening dormant interest in the King of Pop. It’s ironic because Martin Bashir, Granada’s interviewer, kept yammering away on “PrimeTime Live” about Jackson’s being a fallen idol, a dethroned king, a former superstar who couldn’t face the reality of his own decline. Hey, here’s a guy who can’t face the reality of anything. It’s a given, but ABC made hay by wallowing in the fact for three hours.
As it happens, an apparent murder at the home of superstar record producer Phil Spector intruded on the “PrimeTime” live hour and took ABC off the subject of Jackson for about 15 minutes. Darn. If only the murder had happened this week instead of last week, ABC could have exploited it with a “PrimeTime Live” all its own.
It was a great relief, let me tell you, when “Nightline” came along and turned out to have nothing whatever to do with Michael Jackson. There still are some actual journalists working at ABC News. We were duly informed, however, that the next day’s “Good Morning America” would be all over Michael again-mainly with still more attacks from people calling him weird and strange and odd.
Elvis’ girl on tap
You can call all this entertainment, and it was indeed ridiculously entertaining, sometimes cruelly entertaining-but call it “news”? Maybe a new term is needed, like say, Walt Disnews. This is the kind of nonnews that results when a big, fat, corrupt and stupid entertainment company buys a network and gets its news division in the bargain. Promos aired during the night informed us that a future prime-time “news” hour would be devoted to Elvis Presley’s daughter. Oh she’s weird. Oh she’s strange. Oh she oughta be good for 10 or 12 million viewers, at least if the promos keep hyping how weird and strange she is.
This is, of course, in the wake of hard-hitting and painfully lengthy reports on ABC during the November sweeps about Jennifer Lopez and Justin Timberlake. Apparently, all that’s left for Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer to fight over now is who gets to interview which kooky cutup from show business-from the nut-infested worlds of pop music and major motion pictures. They’ll take a minor motion picture if they’re desperate.
Not news, no, but an incredible simulation. Disnews. Meeska-mooska, Mouse-kateer. Eisner’s Disnews now is here. The pity is, there are some awfully talented, dedicated and imaginative people working in that news division. It’s too bad they seem to have been sentenced to putting out a combination of People and Us magazines. The economy is collapsing, terrorism threatens perpetually, America may go to war momentarily and ABC is giving us Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow, not to mention that dangerous criminal Winona Ryder.
Bashir did seem to do a good job for the most part, although it was distressing to keep hearing he spent eight months with Jackson on the project. What other story would ever command a correspondent’s attention for the better part (or worse part as the case may be) of a year? We should remember, though, that the British are even fonder of tabloid trash than Americans are. The tabloid press has thrived there for years and years. The New York Post would look too dignified and conservative if put up for sale on a British newsstand. These are not supermarket tabloids but “real” daily newspapers, Rupert Murdoch publications that still print photos of bosomy starlets leaning into the camera.
American journalism, print and television, got worse once Murdoch got more than his foot in the door. He got his ass in the door; that’s when everybody started playing his game.
Walters kept appearing at intervals to coach us all at home on how to react, telling us we would be appalled and stunned and petrified and, I don’t know, sickened beyond our wildest nightmares or something. Again and again we were shown shots of Jackson holding the hand of a 12-year-old boy who had reportedly been diagnosed with cancer but then, after spending lots of time at Jackson’s playground of an estate, made a reputedly miraculous recovery. It was presented as the height of perversion that the kid had slept in the same room as Jackson and that other children had hopped into bed with him on occasion.
Santa Barbara, Calif., District Attorney Thomas Sneddon Jr. was quoted by the Associated Press the next day as saying, “Sleeping in bed with a kid is not a crime that I know of.” The beds of parents all over the world are regularly invaded by their children looking for comfort in the dark of night. Jackson’s attitude toward the children, his own and those of others, appears to be parental, or at worst big-brotherly. The children he has supposedly fathered were apparently all the result of artificial insemination. That is, Michael Jackson gives the impression of being not a dangerous pedophile but more likely just an asexual freak.
Whatever. The whole matter will apparently be passing for a “controversy” in the days ahead, until some real news knocks it out of the center ring. Yes indeedy, Michael Jackson lives a life that looks peculiar, bizarre and definitively odd, but we all knew that going in. Now we just have more details, plus a lot of high dudgeon from the very people who profited so handsomely from bashing his skull for three bloody hours.