Jackson’s death a study in tabloid human instincts
I was bunkered down in 1997 finishing a book called Gotcha: Life in a Tabloid World when I was disturbed by a phone call. Something about a woman called Diana who’d died in a car crash the day before. I had no clue. The journo on the other end of the phone thought she’d accidentally called Mars.
Having lived through both the OJ trial and the Lewinsky/Clinton affair in New York I thought I knew what the eye of a celebrity death, sex or scandal storm looked like. I spent the next week fielding questions from the media about why the media couldn’t stop asking people questions about Diana.
The highbrow journos were all in deep shock about the public interest in a woman they saw as a dim blonde who liked disco dancing, enemas and psychics.
But they were equally transfixed by the level of public grief at her passing The only journalists who really understood what was going on were tabloid reporters – hacks in the minds of the ABC-types who’d previously seen themselves as gatekeepers of the news agenda.
My book, which came out of a Phd thesis on the growing tabloidisation of all news media, argued that the traditional split between quality and trash journalism is simplistic. It ignores the ability of the tabloid media to communicate with people at an emotional level, as well as to play on their worst instincts. Tabloid media has a long history. We easily forget that it’s sometimes played a crucial and radical political role in democracy.
The rise of hyper-celebrity journalism is a new twist in the tabloid tale. Celebrities have become the medium through which the majority of traditional human interest stories are now told: addiction, divorce, sex, getting fat, getting old, getting a boob job. There’s always someone famous doing it larger, louder or weirder. And if there isn’t, there’s usually some newly minted reality starlet ready with the goods.
The modern celebrity fixation has been growing for some time. But even a decade ago the idea that the quality media would go saturation coverage on a celebrity death the way they did with Diana was still bizarre.
In 2009 it’s the status quo. My children told me the King of Pop was dead when I was still in my pyjamas. The boys were already checking the facts online before we turned on CNN. I expected to see wall to wall accounts of his death on every news channel that morning.
What really floored me was turning on BBC World or CNN 48 hours later, looking for some news on Iran to discover that all the senior foreign correspondents were still giving global updates on reactions to Jackson’s death. What’s changed noticeably is that even the highbrow types are embracing the story for all it’s worth. There’s none of the self-conscious ‘why have we gone wrap-around with this’ that attended Diana’s demise.
I do understand why Michael Jackson’s passing is huge news. I shed a tear watching him dance as a kid in a clip from the Jackson 5. His music is a cultural touchstone for many generations. His life resonated with people because he exemplified the best and worst in this messy business of being human.
The level of media coverage inspired by his death – professional and amateur – does, however, leave me feeling like we’ve passed through the looking glass. I’m certainly not saying that traditional fourth estate journalism is the only game in town.
For one thing, too much of it is smugly middle-class and unreflective in its moral posturing. There is, however something distinctly odd in watching the relentless and repetitive gaze of a global media trained on a subject who seemed himself to have melted under that very lens.
The British author Martin Amis put it best, I think, when he talked of Princess Diana being driven to her death by “the high tech dogs of fame”. It will be fascinating to watch how and when the Jackson death story finally moves off the radar.
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