(I did an upgrade on the post I wrote last week concerning the coverage of Michael Jackson's death for my column in this week's Newton County News.)
When Elvis Presley died 32 years ago next month, Walter Cronkite almost did not put the item on the CBS Evening News.
That would have been a mistake. Not only was Elvis a cultural icon, but he was directly responsible for the merging of black and white music that helped spark the success of rock and roll in the mid to late ‘50s. He also was the first to successfully mix rock and video through his movies.
But Cronkite correctly did not lead with Elvis’ death. It was the second story that night.
The days of Walter Cronkite on the evening news ended 28 years ago. If Elvis died today and he didn’t lead the story with it he probably would have been fired…and that does not say much about the media.
Neither does the overkill in coverage we have seen since Michael Jackson’s death Thursday night. I can certainly understand the news value. Not only was Jackson a major recording artist and cultural figure from 1969 on, but he has also been a fixture in the tabloids and the courts. His name has never been out of the public eye for long. And let's say what most of the network commentators appear to be doing their best to avoid saying- the Michael Jackson coverage is not about the legacy of his music. That would have warranted considerable coverage but nothing like the 24-hour-a-day coverage we are getting now.
No, Michael Jackson is being covered because of his freakish behavior of the past two decades...and, of course, because he died at a relatively young age.
If it had just been about the music, then the 24 hour news cycle would have been dominated a couple of years back when Ray Charles died.
And it wasn't just Michael Jackson. The overkill was there, though to a lesser extent, for Farrah Fawcett. Her most newsworthy accomplishments were one year on "Charlie's Angels," (33 years ago at that) and a pinup that was the most famous since Betty Grable's in World War II. Otherwise, she has existed primarily in celebrity and tabloid coverage.
I wonder what would have happened if someone whose life was not a tabloid fixture, but whose life was marked with groundbreaking accomplishments had happened to die on the same day as Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. Someone like Neil Armstrong, Henry Kissinger, John Glenn, or Colin Powell. Or Walter Cronkite for that matter.
Since there is no controversy surrounding Neil Armstrong (other than the conspiracy freaks who think he never actually stepped foot on the moon) and he has led a private life, my guess would be he would get a segment on the evening news, perhaps a special (if no celebrity died the same night) and then that would be it.
Even Kissinger, whose time in public life has been steeped in controversy, but who was responsible for major accomplishments (and a couple of major debacles) in foreign policy during his time as national security advisor and secretary of state, would probably not receive much more.
Think about the coverage of those who have died over the past several years. The big headlines and 24-hour coverage have been afforded to Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy Jr and Anna Nicole Smith, all of whom were tabloid fixtures.
The only one I can think of right offhand who actually merited blanket coverage and received it was Ronald Reagan.
Even people like Mother Teresa and Gerald Ford did not have the coverage their lives and accomplishments merited. Not even Pope John Paul reached heights of Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, JFK Jr. or Anna Nicole.
Sadly, in this society if a John Glenn, Colin Powell, or Neil Armstrong died last Thursday, we still would have heard and read far more about the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.
That is not only an indictment of our media, but it says a lot about how superficial our society is becoming.