Since his unexpected death on June 26, Michael Jackson has dominated much of the nation’s news coverage.
Howard Kurtz introduced a discussion of Jackson’s death on CNN’s Reliable Sources with an unflattering clip reel, showing cable media lights musing over the death, the question of the Jackson children’s paternity, the purported secret rooms in his house, his painkiller usage, and so on.
Kurtz’s verdict in a phrase: “This, in my view, is getting out of control.”
Indeed, according to a study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, cable news devoted 93 percent of its airtime to Jackson in the two days immediately following his death. While the drumbeat has let up since, today—the day of his funeral—the King of Pop is being given a saturation send off.
And as important as Michael Jackson was—for his beloved music, for being a metaphor of America’s racial cipher, for the cautionary tale he represented—we all honestly know that his death is not the most important story in the world. There’s unrest in China, Iran, and Honduras. Our president just notched his first major foreign policy achievement, inking a treaty with Russia that could reduce the amount of the world’s nuclear weapons by nearly 30 percent. Congressional committees are at work reshaping health care, the largest sector of our economy. The depth and duration of this recession remains unknown, and the effectiveness of the stimulus meant to shorten it is up for debate.
Given what we could be watching, all the Jackson coverage, according to New York Daily News television critic David Hinckley, means are networks are swimming with the tide, bringing viewers “News Viewers Actually Watch,” and not “News That Actually Matters.” He points to some numbers to make the case:
The night Jackson died, a CBS Jackson special and Jackson editions of ABC’s “2-0/20” and NBC’s “Dateline” drew 21.3 million total viewers.
That’s not an off-the-charts thriller. A “CSI: Miami” rerun last week drew 8.2 million.
But conversely, President Obama’s much-hyped health care special drew just 4.7 million.
So when the audience demand for a story like Jackson’s death is there—and it is—how much of it should journalists cover? To what extent should major outlets try to set the news agenda, as opposed to follow popular demand? In short, how much Jackson is too much Jackson?The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.