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June 26, 2009

The King of Pop, Charlie's Angel and the Big Bad Media Complex

By now, no doubt everyone has heard of today's dual celebrity deaths. Michael Jackson died of suspected cardiac arrest at 50 years old and Farrah Fawcett succumbed to cancer at age 62. You'd have to be living in a cave or the Arctic Circle not to have heard the news. The national media had been talking for days of Fawcett's imminent demise, so her death was less of a shock then Jackson's, but no less sad. What does this have to do with Vermont? Nothing, but it's likely to be the main topic of conversation at offices and neighborhood baseball fields and weekend barbecues for a good while. 

I imagine today will be much like the day that JFK was assassinated, Princess Diana died in a car accident or the planes hit the Twin Towers — everyone will remember where they were when they heard the news that the King of Pop was dead. I was sitting in Uncommon Grounds, writing a story for next week's Seven Days, when I took a break to check the headlines and saw that Michael Jackson had suffered a heart attack. Shortly after that, news spread around the café that the Los Angeles Times was reporting that Jackson died at around 2:30 p.m. PST at UCLA Medical Center.

It's an odd thing how a major news event can make casual acquaintances out of complete strangers. Since I had my computer open, I was the de facto disseminator of information. I read the preliminary reports from NPR, MSNBC and the L.A. Times out loud as my fellow patrons sipped their soy lattes. My friend who was with me at the time is a cardiologist and wondered aloud how a seemingly healthy man like Jackson could have died from cardiac arrest, which apparently is not the same thing as a heart attack. What were his risk factors; was he ill; were there drugs involved? Everyone around us was speculating as well.

To get an in-depth account of what had happened, or at least something longer than a sentence or two, I tried to get on the L.A. Times website, but it was jammed full of people trying to do the same thing. It was refreshing to see that when an event of huge national and international interest happens, people still seek out the newspaper, albeit online, for confirmation and analysis. As a former daily newspaper reporter who still loves that medium, I am grateful for that.

Not a half an hour after Jackson died, NPR posted a massive obituary written by national arts correspondent Neda Ulaby. Obviously they had that one in the can for a while. Not everyone might know this, but major media organizations keep files upon files of obits written pre-death for politicians, celebrities and other people of some import.  These obits periodically get updated so they're ready in the event of an untimely death, such as Jackson's.

I've just finished watching Martin Bashir's "Nightline" special report on Jackson's death and I'm in the middle of the Barbara Walters' "20/20" special on Farrah Fawcett's life, filmed just days before she died. It's amazing that these shows can get pulled together as quickly as they are.  The first show aired at 9 p.m. EST, giving the producers less than four hours to string together an hour-long program. It is impressive to say the least.

Traditional media weren't the only ones working overtime on this. As soon as Jackson's death was reported, Twitter was ablaze with people posting about it. Links were flying around and people were asking if the news was indeed true. There wasn't one Twitter post on my Tweet Deck that wasn't about Jackson. The site was so jammed with people posting about the same event that it was tough to get on it. It was then that I realized just how many people are using the micro-blogging site to get news and information, for better or for worse.

Still, when I think about getting accurate, timely information about something as captivating as Jackson's death, my first bet is always traditional media. No blogger, no tweeter, no citizen journalist can give the depth of coverage needed and wanted. I might be biased, since I ply my trade in written words that are more than 140 characters long. But it's a bias I'll happily cop to.

How have you found the coverage of these two Hollywood deaths to be? Or do you even care? I'd be interested to know.  

If only the mainstream media were this good at covering Iran!

There is no question that Michael Jackson's death was "of interest" to many people. But I would be shocked if "everyone will remember where they were when they heard the news that the King of Pop was dead". I was deeply moved by (and still mourn) the murder of John Lennon but cannot remember where I was when I heard about it.

But I vividly recall hearing the news of JFK's assassination and 9-11. To suggest that Jackson's unfortunate demise is in any way comparable to those events is just a bit over the top. Don't you think?

I don't in fact think it's over the top to suggest the Michael Jackson's death will move some people in the same way that 9/11 or JFK's assassination did. Remember, Jackson had/has legions of fans worldwide for whom Jackson was tantamount to a god. He has had a bigger impact in the music industry than just about every artist of our contemporary age.

I'm not suggesting that his death is at all the same thing as a world leader being shot or thousands of people dying in a terrorist attack. But I do think that his passing will leave a huge void and for many people it will be elevated to the level of a major world event. Look at the outpouring already, from the Apollo Theater to his star on Hollywood Boulevard. His death has already had a major impact on people.

I've always had a hard time being moved by the deaths of celebrities ... I'm not sure why. I did not shed a tear for Princess Di, but I flipped out over Kurt Cobain because we all sort of suspected it was coming. When Heath Ledger died last year, I admit my first reaction was "That's terrible for his family, but hey, I didn't even know him." Then I saw The Dark Knight, and now I really regret the loss of a guy who did amazing work.

So I can't say I'm personally mourning MJ, but just a few days ago I read a book called Starstruck, about fan/celebrity relationships, that has a fascinating chapter on his diehard fans. And now I'm worried about them. Those are some very unstable young women, and MJ was practically a Christ-figure of sorts to them. Call them delusional or what you will... he meant a lot. I haven't been watching the media coverage, but I'm guessing they're giving their soundbites, the ones who are coherent enough. And now they'll begin trying to control his legacy. (These extreme fans aren't shut-ins... many are young European women with good jobs in fields like media.)

If I was Farrah, I'd be pissed off. It was all lined up to be her big day and then WHAMO... somebody even more famous kicks it and steals the spotlight. Seriously though, that might wind up being a good thing for her friends and family. I can't imagine what a horrifying media frenzy the Jackson family is dealing with right now. The funeral is going to be IN-SANE.

I really want to watch "Farrah's Story" (, the film that she and her friends made during her illness, but I'm a little afraid. My brother and sister both died from cancer (colon and breast), so it hits close to home. From what I understand, the sort of cancer Farrah had is easily treated if detected early. I'm a big fan of early detection: I've been getting mammograms every year since I was 34ish, had my first colonoscopy when I was 37 (that was a treat), and I'm about to partake in genetic testing. I'm hoping that the coverage of her death will raise awareness about cancer screening and detection. I bet she'll save some lives.

Michael Jackson was a shocker. His death is way more than just "of interest" to millions of people world wide. Although I've never considered myself a huge fan, I'm damn sure I'll remember where I was when I heard the news. Whatever you think of him or his music, he was and always will be a legend.

This guy sums it up pretty fabulously:

I think MGP's post with that link happened at the same time as mine 'cuz I didn't see it before. Spooky.

Looks like the tail end of the link got cut off up there. Here it is again:

"I don't in fact think it's over the top to suggest the Michael Jackson's death will move some people in the same way that 9/11 or JFK's assassination did."

But that's not what you said initially or what I responded to.

You said "I imagine today will be much like the day that JFK was assassinated, Princess Diana died in a car accident or the planes hit the Twin Towers — everyone will remember where they were when they heard the news that the King of Pop was dead."

"Everyone" is not the same as "some people".

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