Tuned In

Breaking MJ's Death: Web, TV Divide Labor

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You know you’ve beaten people on a story when your direct competition does stories on your having beaten them. The Los Angeles Times has a piece today headlined “TV misses out as gossip website TMZ reports Michael Jackson’s death first”—which is all true, but by posting news of Jackson’s death at 5:20 p.m. E.T., the Hollywood-news site also scooped the LAT and the rest of the print business as well. [Update: TMZ’s post is date-stamped 5:20 p.m. E.T., but as commenter nowareyou notes, the LAT article places the post at 5:44 E.T.; in either case, it beat its older-media peers to the news.] (Disclosure: TMZ, like TIME, is a Time Warner property. As was CNN, which was left floundering to confirm the story long after TMZ did.)

Jackson’s death was an example of the speed of news today and the emergence of new, fleeter sources of information—as, let’s face it, is every big news story today. But it also raises questions about what actually counts as “knowing” and “scooping” nowadays. 

If you were following feeds and the Trending Topics on Twitter yesterday afternoon, after all, you “knew” of Jackson’s death well before TMZ confirmed it. But hearing about something and confirming it are two different things. The easy, flip dismissal in situations like this is that old-fashioned media were playing catch-up while social media got the news and disseminated it eventually. But the fact is that in newsrooms across the country, reporters “knew” what Twitter users did far before they reported it. The lag time came from waiting to confirm the story according to their standards. (Which is not to say that the faster sources had the loosest standards: TMZ is essentially a fairly old-fashioned shoe-leather outfit that happens to publish online.) 

Denied the scoop, TV outlets went to their strengths: cable news filled time with interview after interview, launching quickly into speculation on the circumstances of Jackson’s death and whether it was related to his prescription-drug abuse history. The big networks, meanwhile, went to the archives for primetime retrospectives (with the added challenge of juggling them with already-planned specials on the life and death of Farrah Fawcett). ABC in particular had the advantage of drawing on Martin Bashir, the now Nightline co-anchor who conducted legendary interviews with Jackson. 

From my standpoint, though, the best and most apt TV tribute to Jackson was the MTV live remembrance (followed by a video marathon), which also aired on VH1. Not bothering to chase the news or speculate on the next turn, the channel was able to focus on Jackson as he most mattered to the audience, as a cultural figure with sweeping influence and the artist who did more than any other to establish MTV. (While, by the way, starting to integrate the mostly white lineup of its early days.)

Where the big networks mostly knew Jackson as a tragic and tabloid figure, MTV, like its fans, knew him as a major element in the cultural air they breathed since birth. And it devoted a lot of its airtime to appreciations from musicians (some of them in diapers when Thriller came out) ranging from Snoop Dogg to Pete Wentz to Timbaland to John Mayer. For once in the history of Twitter, the reading of earnest celebrity tweets actually seemed appropriate. 

Now TV news is into wait-and-speculate mode as it waits for the results of an autopsy. That’s to be expected: Jackson’s death may not be historical news, but it’s big news and there’s no shame in chasing it for a while. But one of the best things TV news could do for now is to remember, as well, that there are other things going on in the world. Cable is still pretty much wall-to-wall, but it was refreshing to see CNN take some time near the top of the news hour this morning for an update on Iran. 

And yet, Jackson was a global artist, after all—even in the Ayatollahs’ Iran, as this clip from Persepolis shows: