Thoughts on Jackson and the Media

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Hari Sreenivasan is a CBS News Correspondent based in New York.

As the creation and consumption of content regarding Michael Jackson continues, sadly I wonder about the circumstances surrounding the future of my business (aka mainstream media) perhaps as much as I do about the particular circumstances involved in the end of an entertainer's life.

The same media that helped build a global brand more recognized than McDonald's or Microsoft and made the Moonwalk a worldwide shuffle is back now, for a last chance to prod and poke into the life and death of someone who stole the spotlight when he was on stage and shunned it when he was off stage. It seems now, however, that the information gathering apparatus is more a multi-headed and all-consuming hydra that instantly amplifies any piece of information it can to the masses. This, compared to the idea of some semi-enlightened collective running head long toward the verification of fact, or toward offering perspective which may let its audience make a more informed and independent decision on the Michael they would like to remember.

From the moment the first rumors of his death surfaced on TMZ and were echoed across the twitter-sphere, 24 hour cable news and the broadcast networks tried to "confirm" it, and it was a process we seemed to witness "live". As one network after another cut into normally scheduled programming and reported that Jackson was dead, a 24 hour cable channel said they had confirmed with sources that he was in a coma. That very moment also highlighted the importance of trusted intermediaries. For it was not until the L.A. Times ("old" media) ran with the story, did it seemingly become fact that was echoed through several other trusted brands.

Just as 24 hour news began siphoning viewers away from the half hour all-knowing summary at the end of each day, today's online mediums are also training their audiences that information is available not only at any time but anywhere and almost at any speed.

The question seems to be who will all these twittering/ blackberry wielding / you tube video creating/ consumers trust- a rumor mill that is willing to pay "tip fees" or a brand their parents grew up watching or something else altogether.

One place where big media cleans the clocks of the twitterati and gossip blogs and tabloid sites is their ability to dive into their archives that "new" or social media simply does not have access to.

Network specials are a phenomenal show of force and in the past couple of weeks, all three big networks displayed these strengths. They showed clips of Michael in rare interviews sometimes making seemingly contradictory statements about his behavior with young boys, and at other times revealing very personal and scarring portions of his past, events and moments the blogosphere could only masticate. These specials didn't need to have a thesis sentence, and a salacious headline to lure people into agreeing with a preconceived notion. To borrow a phrase that seems more a modern day marketing slogan than credo for behavior- they reported, so you could decide. However, those well produced hour specials seem but small drops in a never ending well of "reporting" on his death.

Wag the dog?
For the first time ever in my relatively short television career of 15 years, I found myself standing outside the gates of a location (Neverland Ranch) along with a congregation of reporters, producers, cameras, and at least 70 satellite trucks based on an unconfirmed rumor from a celebrity gossip site. Given, TMZ "broke" the fact of Jackson's death, far before mainstream media had an opportunity to confirm it, but the deployment of so many resources to the rolling hills of rural Santa Barbara county based on little more than the plausibility of a rumor was unprecedented for me. For anyone that has ever been there before, it seems logistically inconceivable to orchestrate a public service which would likely attract thousands of people to park along a windy country road, but we were there watching the delivery of picnic tables and portable toilets, wondering somehow whether this place would become to MJ what Graceland was to Elvis.

Perhaps part of the reason was that we were all looking for a different place to be "live". We had camped outside the suburban Los Angeles home of Michael's parents for days, drawing tourists and maudlin mourners to the makeshift memorial as well as the random nitwits who come to see the spectacle that we inevitably are part of. When Joe Jackson came out with Al Sharpton, there was an image I sent out on twitter which made me wonder what ring of the circus we were in (follow @sreenivasan) Whether "live" is justified and what that adds to the steady trickle of information is left to debate for another blog but a change in scenery likely relieved the residents of Encino as much as it disturbed the land owners along Figueroa Mountain Road.

The undercovered
I wonder how many people besides Ahmedinijad, and Governor Sanford are thanking their lucky stars that the spotlights were shifted away from them. If the rebellious movement in Iran had any chance of regaining media traction despite the censorship, imprisonment, raids by police, the topic was swept off the radar by MJ. Governor Sanford even confessed to the possibility of "crossing the line" in even more affairs than the one he admitted to with the paramour in Argentina but that didn't come close to moving the needle away from every compass that pointed toward Michael.

I remember hearing local stations in California in my earpiece before my own live shots- on the eve of, and on the day of California's budget crisis, when I realized that I was the second most important story in some newscasts. It was staggering to me that the largest state in the country had begun writing IOUs and that my daily updated details of speculation on Michael's funeral plans were still considered as important to stations in California.

What happens next?
Academics love pontificating that the role of the media to set the agenda will disintegrate in the face of immediate social networks, but I disagree. Seems that being right more often than being first will be rewarded by an audience who is smart enough to switch sources with a click. Perhaps the half hour network news shows will cede "breaking" news to 24 hour cable beasts that constantly need to be fed pictures and sound. 24 hour news channels seem destined to run parallel to social media networks, verifying video sources and turning them around for thousands in a split second.

Perhaps network newscasts will marshal their forces for enterprise reporting once again, and create well produced and well researched products similar to their half hour or hour specials, that raise important questions and prompt action. Because it seems that a story like this, in a time like this, points glaringly at the inevitable fact of physics that along with size and strength comes a lack of agility. The blogosphere will inevitably mash-up and remix these videos to suit their own agendas and preach to their own choirs but the place of big media could be secure because bloggers know disseminating opinion is far cheaper than verifying fact.

Is it fact that our perception of time is accelerating or just an echo chamber of decision makers in politics and media and entertainment who feel like everything has to operate and compete at tweet speed? These folks also must recognize that the very technologies that create the ability to personalize and customize the content we consume could lead us to be the editors of our own micro newscasts based on their work. Consumers already choose their own micro music casts based on their tastes and preferences without the help or hindrance of record labels. All this continued fracturing and disintermediation only means one thing for certain- that no band or singer is ever likely to ascend to the global fame of Michael Jackson.


  • Hari Sreenivasan

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