The zombies may have stalked Michael Jackson on camera in his music video “Thriller,” but it was the media vampires who hounded him off camera and eventually sucked him dry. For years, the media pundits crucified the man they dubbed Wacko Jacko in order to titillate readers and amuse viewers. Now, they’ve deified him in death for the very same purpose.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about tabloid news, entertainment news or legitimate news shows — as the Jackson coverage shows, there’s little difference between them anymore. They all exist for one purpose, and that is to make money. If what sells is entertainment news, then the Jackson coverage is a good indicator of exactly how dangerous celebrity-driven news has become for our country and our democracy.

The coverage was exhaustive and covered every media platform: online, broadcast, print tabloids, broad sheets, radio. As Variety reported, “TV’s entertainment strips and news mags were preparing Friday for what will likely be weeks — possibly months — of coverage.”

Anticipating higher newsstand sales, many newspapers even rushed to put out special editions to commemorate Jackson’s life and death. “In newspapers like the New York Times, Jackson, 50, took over much of the Friday front page,” reported Reuters. “Forget the political uproar in Iran, which has dominated headlines in recent days or the adulturous [sic] governor of South Carolina, or even the demise of ‘Charlie’s Angels’ star Farrah Fawcett.”

Advertisers smelled a profit in the making. They could use the dead man to sell their products, and Americans would lap it up. Within the first few hours of reporting Jackson’s death on June 25, 2009, cable news channels, which devoted their airtime almost exclusively to the King of Pop, pulled in more than 10 million viewers.

Since then, the networks have provided a steady stream of mindless coverage to fill the airtime. They’ve speculated on Jackson’s will, his estate, who will get custody of his children, his drug usage, his sexual proclivities and his state of mind.

Days after Jackson’s death, I was still hard-pressed to find much in the way of real news about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rising tensions in Iran, the state of the U.S. job market, the worldwide economic crisis or the Obama administration’s latest efforts to advance their health care agenda. Truly enterprising viewers might have been able to glean important tidbits on world politics and the economy from the tiny news crawl running at the bottom of their screen, but even those were overshadowed by the Jackson coverage.

I had to wonder: are the networks merely giving us what we want with this steady diet of celebrity news or are we being inculcated into the kinds of mindless viewers, aka consumers, they want? It’s an important distinction, with far-reaching implications for the future of democracy.

Americans today primarily get their news from television. Yet even with the rise of 24-hour news channels, people aren’t any more informed about the real issues of the day. As a Pew Research Center report found, “Since the late 1980s, the emergence of 24-hour cable news as a dominant news source and the explosive growth of the Internet have led to major changes in the American public’s news habits. But a new nationwide survey finds that the coaxial and digital revolutions and attendant changes in news audience behaviors have had little impact on how much Americans know about national and international affairs.”

News should inform, uplift and challenge. It should make you think analytically. Instead, today’s news networks entertain and titillate. What’s more, there’s little discernible difference between them anymore. When it comes to money and greed, they’re all the same: they have all resorted to sensationalist tabloid journalism, because that’s what sells. In the process, they have done Americans a great disservice, not only by failing to inform them but by programming them to feed at the trough. Americans have been bombarded with saturated media coverage containing little substance, and the Jackson coverage is a perfect example of this.

Unfortunately, most Americans have bought into the notion that whatever the media happens to report is important and relevant. In the process, Americans have more and more become like sheep and have lost the ability to ask questions and think analytically.

Yet who loses when the people don’t know anything about the workings of their government? Democracy.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.

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