Michael Jackson story: Is it really that big?
Saturation coverage of singer's arrest raises questions about America's obsession with celebrity.
When Jeff McCall went channel-surfing the other day, he expected to find updates on President Bush in London, the 34-nation economic summit in Miami, and terror attacks in Turkey.Skip to next paragraph
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What he found instead, on the top cable news networks, was wall-to-wall, live coverage of the surrender of handcuffed pop star Michael Jackson to authorities in Santa Barbara, Calif., on child molestation charges. The nonstop coverage by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, as well as dozens of regional and local media outlets, was just the latest indication of an American culture and media metamorphosis that disturbs him.
"We've finally accomplished the perfect merger between tabloid media and traditional news," says Mr. McCall, a professor of communications at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. On-scene commentators filled air time with speculation ranging from what kind of plane and color of car Mr. Jackson would arrive in to the cosmetic details of his booking photo. "When you have this kind of celebrity involved with the criminal justice system, you have a double whammy of excitement that often shows the news media at its worst," says McCall - "even though there are underlying issues of great importance to society."
The underlying issue of greatest importance in this case, say McCall and others, is child molestation and the challenge to the US justice system in determining guilt or innocence in such a high-profile case. Jackson is free on $3 million bail after being booked Nov. 20 on multiple counts of child molestation.
But the issues go beyond legal ones. Jackson's long, public slide from stardom and adulation has been laden with lurid and sensational incidents that raise serious questions of his physical and psychological health. In particular, his statements about and behavior with children has provoked moral outrage.
After settling a similar molestation charge out of court a decade ago, Jackson has brought the spotlight on himself again and again - from video pictures of him dangling his own child from a Berlin balcony, to interviews in which he freely admits to, and defends, sleeping beside children in a nonsexual manner.
Some analysts trace a steady downturn in his record sales and popularity to public disgust over the allegations, whether or not they were ever proved in court.
Like other legal cases of celebrities falling from grace - from Charlie Chaplin to O.J. Simpson - the Jackson story is likely to have legs. After all, his life story is singular: After becoming a child star at a young age with the Jackson Five, he has gone on to produce several of the best-selling pop albums of all time.
The challenge for both the media and their consumers now, say McCall and social and cultural critics, is how to properly draw out substantive elements in the ensuing narrative that go beyond mere titillation and shallow fascination. In recent years, the media's treatment has been questionable: Entertainment shows have made fun of Jackson's eccentric habits, from sleeping in oxygen chambers to having his children wear Halloween masks in public, purportedly to protect their privacy.
Yet in the world of ratings-driven TV, programming choices reflect what viewers want to see. And the novelty and bizarreness of Jackson's behavior, intertwined with a proven talent to write and perform bestselling music, make his current legal battle an unavoidable topic for ratings-driven media scrutiny, analysts say.