On June 25th, many Americans learned about the death of Michael Jackson from the Internet. They had already learned how to use social networks to share that information — and their grief — with others, far outpacing traditional television media.
Apparently, the three main broadcast works didn’t learn anything from that day. On July 7, they allowed themselves to take part in the deification of a song-and-dance man when they simply should have let their Internet properties do the work for them.
By now, we should be immune to the sight of cable news networks abdicating any sense of news judgment, perspective and context when it comes to stories involving celebrities, crime or politics (and the occasional mixing of all three).
This sorry timeline began with O.J. Simpson and included other already-famous and famous-thanks-to-cable citizens like Jon Benet Ramsey, John F. Kennedy Jr., Princess Diana, Chandra Levy, Gary Condit, Terri Schiavo, Britney Spears, Laci Petersen, Anna Nicole Smith and Natalee Holloway. And, of course, multiple cameo appearances from Jackson himself — weddings, accusations, trials, etc.
O.J., the other former cable news gift that kept on giving, is now in prison. Unless he’s planning a “Public Enemies”-style escape, he’ll be there for a while. So it shouldn’t have been that surprising that CNN, FNC and MSNBC gave their own grand, over-the-top goodbyes to Jackson in the hopes of mining ratings gold one last time from his long, stellar and ultimately sad story. (Even the coffin on the Staples Center stage was a gilded one; a fitting symbol for Jackson’s place in cable news history and his value to its bottom line.)
Walls Came Tumbling Down
However, ABC, CBS and NBC should have known better. They are supposed to represent the last bastions of real news left on television.
(I’ll give you a moment for the laughter to die down.)
Uh, yes, I am aware that the broadcast nets have faced similar criticisms concerning the dumbing-down of journalism; budget cuts and foreign bureau closings; the creation of anchor cults of personality; prime-time “news” shows that play up crime and entertainment.
Yet witness the reports during last year’s election coverage regarding NBC anchors and reporters voicing some concerns about their cable cousin MSNBC’s obvious leftward tilt in prime-time. Certain walls remained rigid when it came to how some news stories were treated on broadcast and how they were treated — or mistreated — on cable.
Then came Tuesday in Los Angeles. We were all treated to the awkward sight of ABC’s Charles Gibson and NBC’s Brian Williams having to preside over a commercial-free memorial for an entertainer — not a dead president, pope or princess to be found for miles. CBS’s Katie Couric was a little better prepared, thanks to her previous “Today” experiences; in the first hour of her former NBC morning show, she would interview princes and kings; in the last hour, personalities like Prince and Don King.
Tuesday didn’t have to happen. The Web was ready to step in and save Charles, Katie and Brian from cable news hell.
Media Overkill in the Age of Twitter
The memorial ran during the middle of the workday in the eastern and central time zones, so there were lots of tears being shed in cubicles between staff projects, PowerPoint presentations and memos re: cover sheets for TPS reports (obligatory Office Space reference).
Akamai, the keeper of all Web traffic knowledge, said Tuesday’s memorial drew 3.9 million online visitors a minute, the third-highest level this year. Jackson’s June 25 death brought 4.2 million people a minute to the Web, while President Obama’s inauguration still ranks first with 7 million visitors a minute.
An hour-long visit to major media Web sites and social networks during the height of the memorial turned up some slowdowns, particularly with CNN.com — expected to be bombarded with traffic, considering the coverage overkill on the TV side — and TMZ.com, the Web site that broke the news of Jackson’s death two weeks ago.(AOL.com relied on TMZ for its streaming coverage, which was probably a mistake.)
Despite some glitches, lots of video windows popped up on PCs worldwide, and the Internet held up to the strain.
As it did with Obama’s inauguration, CNN.com joined with Facebook for real-time status updates along with its streaming coverage sans anchor commentary. The updates were mostly fans of Jackson sharing grief and memories; there were admissions of tears when Brooke Shields almost lost it during her time on stage, when Jermaine Jackson sang “Smile,” and at the very end, when Jackson’s daughter said her goodbye. (Watching as a daddy, it was a truly heartbreaking moment, but allow me to suggest another possible reaction: anger at the exploitative nature of the children’s appearance on stage by a family that knows how to crack the whip at a three-ring media circus.)
MSNBC.com shared its video screens with the social network of the moment, Twitter, and the tweets flew. At one point during the memorial, Michael Jackson or a related hashtag took up every one of the Trending Topics shown on the Twitter home page.
My point is that the Web video infrastructure and social media tools were standing by, ready for action. Why couldn’t ABC and CBS have moved Jackson memorial coverage to their Web sites, promoted the hell out of it, and used the opportunity to show off their mad Internet skillz? The Jackson memorial was a legitimate news event — but not on the level of a presidential funeral or a terrorist attack. Sorry, I don’t care how many global fans Jackson had, who was set to perform, or whether — as Brian Williams told his audience — sometimes the people tell you what to cover even if you don’t agree. This is why news judgment and curation matters in the era of Facebook, mobile video, citizen journalism and constant streams of information bombarding us from all angles.
Greedy and Desperate
In Williams’ case, NBC already had wall-to-wall coverage on MSNBC and MSNBC.com. It got the story treatment half-right. Adding the mothership network into the mix was just pure greed and some kind of desperate bid for pop culture relevance — akin to your 50-year-old uncle demonstrating that moonwalk thing.
And please, spare me the Tuesday ratings; it was a one-time event, so it’s not like networks and their affiliates will be adjusting their advertising rates based on the 25-54 demographic results. They still lost money from ads that were scheduled to run during soap operas, and possibly lost viewers who may have not have felt the same way about Jackson as his most ardent fans.
Williams does feel the democratizing elements that the Internet brings to journalism; he’s blogging on a regular basis now, and he knows the value of a news conversation enabled by social media. Despite the good intentions, though, the viewers can’t become managing editors for the Big Show. It’s the age-old “news that they want vs. news that they need” argument, and the old media/new media paradigm doesn’t make that disappear into the ether — or the Ethernet.
What the Web does provide savvy news organizations is a handy receptacle for stories like the Jackson memorial, complete with multimedia presentations and other enhanced coverage — and social media give them the tools to connect with viewers without having to skew news judgment.
We’ll stick one more Michael Jackson song reference into the cacophony left from two weeks of smotherage: The cable news networks never can say goodbye to Jackson. The broadcast networks never should have said goodbye in the first place.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.