Celebrity death coverage reveals ridiculousness of 24-hour news channelsJun 30th, 2009 | By Mike Courson | Category: Blogs, Opinions
by Mike Courson
Talk about your worst day ever. Just before 11:30 a.m. last Friday, Farrah Fawcett, 62, died of cancer in a Santa Monica hospital. Fawcett, whose well-publicized bout with cancer was featured in Fawcett’s documentary “Farrah’s Story,” should have been the news of the day. Several hours later, however, Michael Jackson, 50, died and Fawcett’s final story slipped to the back page.
It’s generally sad when people die. More tragic than the passing celebrity, I’ve always thought the unnoticed dead are among life’s great sorrows. How can one go through life so alone that no one, not even a friend or a family member, misses him when he is gone? Obviously, we never hear about these deaths.
On the other extreme, the passing of certain celebrities goes a bit far in the other direction. I understand the importance of these people. Though I never cared a whole lot for Jackson’s music, I understand that 100 million copies is a monumental achievement not possible without a huge base of devoted fans, many of whom probably considered Jackson their idol. My aim is not to trivialize a hero’s death, but to point a finger at the major media factions that should know better.
I began my news watching days with Fox News about nine years ago. I watched Bill O’Reilly every night and kept Fox News on all day during my first two years of college. Tiring of the propaganda and busy broadcasts — could they fit any more graphics onto one screen? — I turned to MSNBC. This channel seemed legitimate for a while, but after the firing of Don Imus, morning news became unbearable to watch and the station’s hard turn to the left took away my chance at objective news.
That is how I ended up at CNN many months ago, and how I learned of Jackson’s death last week. After about an hour of coverage, however, I remembered that a 24-hour network can only repeat the same few known facts a limited number of times. After that, the broadcast essentially becomes useless despite the bright yellow graphic that says breaking news. It was breaking news on Thursday. By Sunday, though, the only thing breaking was CNN’s piggy bank of credibility.
I kept my coverage of the event limited, but was saddened that I could not tune in for other news events. Unlike the Jackson death, the situation in Iran was full of constantly changing news. Though I cannot condone the use of Twitter, I understand CNN’s use of the technology, and appreciate the risks taken by protesters in Iran to share the news. The fact is, American news stories generally lack the need for 24-hour coverage because our society is fairly stable.
But there was CNN, Anderson Cooper to be specific, telling his viewers that he was only going to report on the facts. For the next 20 minutes, he and others discussed possible drug use by Jackson. Someone used the word “may,” and another said “I think.” Since when did these become standards of good journalism? Imagine this from November, 1963: “This just in, we think President Kennedy has been shot.”
CNN’s reporting on Jackson’s death says a lot about people. As a coworker said last week, if he turned on CNN and they were not talking about the possible causes of Jackson’s death, he would change it to a channel that was. A market is born. As was the case with Imus, where MSNBC fired an employee because of lost revenue potential, so too is CNN looking to the dollar and ratings over credibility of reporting. When did the news become a reality show?
The fact that Jackson was a celebrity does not better society’s argument, either. Over the past decade, we have heard little positive about Jackson, yet his idol status remains worldwide. One recent report mentioned a $400 million debt. This is on top of the hundreds of millions he made and spent. Only a celebrity could get away with that.
And therein lies the problem: our fascination with celebrities. Everyone hates the photographers who stalk celebrities, but we still go out and buy the magazines that use those photographs.
Comedian Dave Chappelle talked about Jackson in his 2004 special “For What It’s Worth.” It may be the finest one hour of comedy I’ve seen, as Chappelle turns to social issues really for the first time. Why did Jackson have all those crazy surgeries? To please his fans. Why do movie phone numbers always begin with 555? Because someone in the audience will try to call the number and talk to the character. Chappelle says he did ads for both Pepsi and Coke. He couldn’t even taste a difference, he just liked the brand that paid him more.
My own ad this week would feature another celebrity of sorts. A Michael Jackson “Thriller” album: $15. The legendary Farrah Fawcett poster: $20. Watching CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interrupt himself to watch a Jackson Five clip: priceless. Ridiculous, but priceless.