After Michael Jackson’s death yesterday, now is a good time for me to avoid the mass media for a while, as they bludgeon the public into feeling something for his regrettable passing. And “something” is not enough, not for the US media, which pride themselves on the depth and fervency of their feeling, if not of their reporting and fact checking. For pure mawkish melodrama, news and entertainment rival late medieval flagellants and the late 19th-century kitsch merchants, or any other totalitarian enterprise that uses pathos and enthusiasm to block intelligent inquiry.
I have a low tolerance for histrionics of any kind—much worse for me when these feeling frenzies get amplified and endlessly looped in the media machines.
Even NPR this morning has the predictable on-the-street interviews, getting heartfelt responses from everyday people, with a particular focus on what Jackson’s legacy would be: his music? or his life style? Crowds outside Neverland chant “Michael, Michael, Michael.” Madonna can’t stop the tears.
It’s all too true to pattern: Not a child goes missing but that Good Morning America can’t get two or more relatives to bare their true feelings live at 7:00 a.m. the next day. There is no high-magnitude earthquake without the good citizens of Savannah, Georgia, being asked how they would feel if such a catastrophe were to strike their hometown.
Unlike the recent sad losses of Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon, Jackson’s untimely death is monumental—easily comparable to the shockingly unexpected deaths of JFK, MLK, Elvis Presley, or John Lennon. Where were you when you heard the news?
And I would certainly not deny the impulse to eulogize a celebrity of Jackson’s accomplishment, influence, and appeal. I am not a hater … or a fan—to my own bewilderment, then and now, I didn’t get the success of Off the Wall and Thriller, though I sympathized with Jackson’s fair complaint that (back in the early 1980s) MTV was snubbing black artists. I realize that Justin Timberlake and Usher see something in the man’s talent and persona to admire and copy—but whatever it is, it has eluded me (like QVC and Lord of the Rings).
And it’s obvious, too, that the media find it easier to cover such events than to explain the protests in Iran (where the Associated Press is forced to cite Twitter and YouTube) or the pressing need for healthcare reform (where coverage affects the financial interests of advertisers and corporate owners).
With an event like the death of the King of Pop, the news is prepackaged and star studded—and, no doubt, there will be money and ratings to gain.
I hope in death Michael Jackson finds the peace that seemed to elude him in life.
More importantly, to me, I hope the people of Iran will not be further destroyed by religion and politics, I hope American healthcare and finance receive at least a great number of the reforms they desperately require, and I hope our culture survives the shrill, incessant noise of its entertainment and information sources and finds peace and consolation (a lot to hope for) in perhaps philosophy, reason, or contemplation of the beautiful and good.