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.
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.
"For many people, Michael Jackson has moved from a talented child star to a caricature," says Peter Montoya, publisher of a magazine on celebrity marketing and personal branding. "Whether or not they know about his music, they want to know how he seems to get more and more divorced from reality."
Because of this, other analysts fear, the serious elements of Jackson's legal challenge may get written off totally.
"This story has all of the elements of a great, classic film in which the protagonist goes from rags to riches giving the public what it wants, and then spins out of control," says Anthony Mora, author of several books on media, pop culture, and fame. "Are we interested in the rush we get from watching a fall from grace, or from the lessons we can learn?"
Those lessons could include ones about what Americans value. Public pressure, for example, led to a recent California law change that widens prosecutorial power in getting youth to testify in molestation cases.
But there's always the possibility of the media straying into peripheral minutia. Take the O.J. Simpson case, in which issues of jury selection, evidence tampering, and police conspiracy competed with topics such as the dating habits of O.J. houseguest Kato Kaelin and the favorite restaurants of prosecutor Marcia Clark.
"American TV viewers have to become careful over the nightmare side to our fascination with fame," says Martin Kaplan of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "We live in a kind of frenzy culture in which we build someone up into the latest sensation, give them the millions to create an impregnable reality of their own, and then can't turn away when that false reality collapses on them."
For Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, who watched Jackson's rise to fame, then became a partner with Jackson in spotlighting children's issues several years ago, it was Jackson's separation from normal society at a young age that has created problems of judgment for him.
"We went to lectures about children, created events for them, book signings and all the rest," says Mr. Boteach, "but then his life became anarchy and chaos, and he stopped keeping commitments. The people around him thought his interest in children's issues diminished his star power."
Now Jackson's star power is marred by his legal problems. The case stems from allegations that a 12-year-old boy was molested during visits to Jackson's 2,600-acre Neverland Ranch north of Santa Barbara. The boy alleges that Jackson served him wine and molested him several times last winter.
Mark Geragos, Jackson's lawyer, says Jackson calls the charges a "big lie," and "looks forward" to fighting them out in court.
Some analysts feel such charges are being leveled only because Jackson has money and fame. Others feel his wealth and fame will give him a better chance of beating the charges. Like the O.J. Simpson trial and the recent case of billionaire Robert Durst - who was acquitted after admitting to cutting up a neighbor's body and then fleeing - the Jackson case is reopening debate on whether American justice can be fair to both rich and poor.
"There is no question that this legal case will be argued over and scrutinized more than any other case like it, just because Michael Jackson is so famous," says Owen Sloane, a lawyer who has represented celebrities such as Elton John and Barry Manilow. "My feeling is that he is probably being singled out by authorities because of his fame. People on all sides need to subtract the fame from the situation to sift out what is really at stake."