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MJ Coverage: How Much Is Too Much?

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Is the news media overcovering Michael Jackson’s continuing death at the expense of news that matters? In the New York Daily News, David Hinckley argues that the media is “just responding to Michael Jackson’s fans demands,” with coverage that audiences have ratified with ratings. 

I agree with him to an extent. It would be silly to ignore the memorial ceremony this afternoon—however garish the spectacle may end up being—since it is, after all, the public farewell for arguably the most famous entertainer on the planet. But I think that Hinckley is ignoring—as journalists are wont to do in these situations—the effect that the media coverage itself has on the public demand. It’s not our decision, we like to say. We just, to paraphrase MJ, can’t stop ’til you get enough.

That’s not to say the media brainwashes people into caring about Michael Jackson. But it is to say that, once a news frenzy metastasizes across enough platforms long enough, the spectacle becomes its own justification. It’s not just some spontaneous outpouring of public demand that the media had no part in but cannot ignore. It becomes The Thing That’s Going On, the thing that everyone is talking about. I’m sure many people thronging outside the Staples Center are there because they deeply loved Michael Jackson. But how many are there because it’s The Thing—because it will be on a dozen TV channels, because so many thousands of others will be there, because how could you have the chance to be there and pass it up? 

(By the way, the media feels the same effect. It’s important to remember that “The Media” is not some coordinated syndicate that decides with one mind what to foist on people. [Update: Put another way, the media is less like an institution, like the government, and more a force, like the weather.] It’s a collection of people, who are as susceptible as anyone to the influence of the media—TV frenzies and the Trending Topics list on Twitter. That, of course, and ratings numbers and newsstand sales; and I say this fully aware that I work for a magazine that rushed a special Michael Jackson issue to press last week.)

I’m not sure, for that matter, how much of the public “demanded” that cable news channels spend so much airtime last week discussing the circumstances of Jackson’s death when there were absolutely zero new developments to report in it. The mediasphere will be overwhelmed by the Jackson memorial today, understandably—I’ll be tweeting and blogging on it myself.

But it’s tomorrow, and the days after, and the weeks after, that I wonder about. At some point, it needs to be enough. Doesn’t it?