The Media in the Mirror

Michael Jackson's sad end says a lot about the state of electronic journalism, perhaps more than we wanted to know. Forget TMZ. The watchword (OK, watch-acronym) is TMI.

Even in a world in which glitzy stories, particularly the deaths of media figures, take 24-hour news channels hostage and demand big ratings in the ransom note, Jackson may become a case study in excess.

Not that the man and his music don't deserve attention. They should, and clearly have. We care about media figures because the media give us a sense, false as it may be, that we actually know these people. Even Michael Jackson.

When they die, some care and often grieve as for a relative. It is easy to dismiss any such intense focus on a star's death as media voyeurism (or loony fandom), but that would be unfair both to the media and millions of fans.

But after the first shock of his death, each aftershock became its own story, and arguably the media generated some shocks of their own to keep the buzz—and ratings—going. It all began to seem like, well, overkill, in that it was capitalizing on tragedy for the sake of much-needed ratings.

And without a 24-hour platform for the story (except for the Web), some broadcast network news operations were forced to try to compete by putting the story everywhere they could think of, from the morning shows to primetime specials.

Ironically, CNN, which could not confirm Jackson's death until hours after others said they had confirmed it, was forced to rely on reports from CBS, for one, in its round-the clock coverage, while CBS had to fit in its confirmation wherever it could. (Cue the latest round of CNN-CBS News merger rumors.)

There was much talking-head talk about what TMZ's scoop on the singer's death meant to the traditional “two sources” rule. Some news outlets reported on that report, while others disdained a single online source, at least “that” single online source. By contrast, many news organizations are perfectly comfortable to report on deaths by proxy relying on the single source of a traditional newswire like AP or Bloomberg, though that is on the faith and credit of those outlets doing their own due diligence.

We don't think TMZ's scoop raises its stature to that level. But it does raise the provocative topic of where the instant journalism of the Web is pushing traditional outlets, and whether they must go with the flow or be trampled, or stick to their guns and emerge as the credible sheriff in a Wild West of almost, sort-of facts.

If Jackson's death can help prompt a serious discussion about that increasing tension between speed and accuracy, it would bring some good out of this tragedy.