I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Making Saint Michael

I am being pushed and prodded from all sides. It seems everyone wants to know what I think if the Michael Jackson coverage. In truth I hadn’t given it much thought. In my mind Jackson has spent the last decade doing his damnedest to make himself irrelevant. I do not believe the media coverage of the events surrounding him have anything to do with news, it’s all about ratings.

When did news organizations begin treating “the Hollywood star making machinery” as a big story? I know that Elvis Presley’s death, while a big story, did not get wall-to-wall coverage. Maybe it was because CNN and Fox News didn’t exist but I doubt it.

The first big story I remember taking over all the airwaves all the time was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But hey, he was the leader of the free world.

The marriage of Lady Diana to the Prince of Wales was covered extensively but it didn’t knock everything else from the news.

I was executive producer of Canada AM when John Lennon was murdered. It was a shocker. We gave over half the show to the story. That’s half, not the whole show, and he was murdered.

The first time I remember a celebrity getting this kind of coverage was the accidental death of Princess Diana. You couldn’t get away from the coverage for weeks on end. Like the coverage of Jackson much of the coverage crossed the line and became maudlin and silly, but as the networks said, it’s what the people want. If we don’t run it the audience will change stations to a channel that is all Diana all of the time. What choice does that leave broadcasters?

So it’s not the news media who are at fault, it’s the audiences who seem to have an insatiable appetite for this trite stuff. Or is it? Is it possible that the media have created this monster?

Years ago there was a successful show format, A Current Affair, being the prime example, that was gaining popularity. News organizations were taken aback when their research found that viewers of this pop-news didn’t know the difference between what ABC was reporting and A Current Affair‘s coverage. In fact many viewers said they were regular news viewers and cited A Current Affair as their favorite newscast. So what did the networks do? Did they produce better more engaging newscasts? No they started to take up the cult of personality. They began to emulate A Current Affair.

Flash forward to today and you can see the results. News is all about personality. President Obama’s kids eating gelato in Rome is a story. Michelle’s dress is a story. The president’s date to go to a Broadway play is a story. And that’s the political news.

So yes, we in the media are to blame in the very least for creating the appetite for this kind of sugary coverage, lots of calories no real nutrition. There will be more of this in future not less, you can bank on it.

There are two things that do bother me. First, we are all brought up being told not to speak ill of the dead, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.” Well, that’s not the way we are supposed to think when we produce the news. A former colleague told me last week that journalism is the search for “truth.” That’s a pretty big idea but it is not wrong.

Where is the truth in the Michael Jackson story? This is a man who spent half a lifetime trying to banish any hint of color from himself. He was an anti-semite. He was strange to the point of being mentally ill, dangling his baby over a balcony and sleeping with young boys at Neverland. I’m not saying this is what the story of his death should be about, I’m saying his death has to covered in that context.

The same was true of Princess Diana. The media totally ignore that this “wonderful mother”, as they called her, hadn’t seen her boys in months because she was carousing around France and the Mediterranean with a known playboy. Further her charitable works were dwarfed by the money she spent on an enormous and hugely expensive wardrobe. She was no Mother Theresa who’s death was ignored because Di died.

If Stalin died today the media would probably heap praise on him for winning World War II and forget the tens of millions he murdered.

The second thing that bothers me is the easy fashion in which television news forgets that anything else is happening in the world. Iran disappeared as a story the moment Jackson died. Riots in China were given short shrift days later. We are lucky the Jackson celebration was before the G8 summit or the world economy and the environment might have disappeared too.

Do I sound upset? I am not. It’s what I have come to expect. Maybe that’s more upsetting than the network coverage.

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks for articulating it better than I could. I have about fifteen seconds to devote to news consumption every day and since the Daily show isn’t on til 2:35 am here I can’t even get some laughs with my facts, so the fact that it took WADING to find out about PEOPLE DYING IN RIOTS really kind of cheesed me off.

  2. Kash says:

    Hear! Hear!

    Howard I do hope news decision makers read this column, although it probably will fall on deaf ears as usual. I went through journalism believing that our job was not just to inform, but also to educate. After all journalists, at least then, had the luxury of spending what to others would have been an inordinate amount of time to study all facets of an issue — more time than the average reader would or could spend. Sometimes we would entertain, if necessary to the narrative.

    Nowadays, it seems it is all about entertainment — infotainment is the coinage I love; and creating cults and personalities, and then dredging them until the ratings start dropping. I believe it is the job of the media to set the tone, to set a standard. The audience will always hanker after the perverse, think of the penny press where the most widely selling pamphlet was the last interview with a murderess at the foot of the gallows! And now? You’re right, at first Iran was indicted without proof and then it just vanished from the media as Michael Jackson came along.

    The other problem Howard is that the media, in addition to reacting to ratings, which means more ads, is also reliant on the stock market. A drop in stock price could mean several news room staffers walking the plank! I suppose one solution is to ban the media from the stockmarket and force them to be public trusts or something… which would be challenged under the freedom of the press clause!

    I’m probably going all over the map, since there is so much to say on this extremely important issue, but the bottom line for me: … I’m so glad I can build my own newspaper on the web using Google, and my own newscast both radio and TV. How about that! And yes, my own newscast did not include more than 10 minutes of Michael Jackson over one week!

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