Friday, June 26, 2009

The death of Michael Jackson and the evolution of “Breaking News”

Nobody ever made pop magic sound as effortless as Jackson did from Off The Wall through Bad. Photo from this site.

Yeah, there’s not even a tangential connection between the Red Sox—or even baseball—and Michael Jackson, who died Thursday at age 50. And hopefully this doesn’t come off as awkwardly misplaced as SportsCenter’s piece, which was centered around the non-Tweeter reaction of Shaquille O’Neal and the Tweets of Andy Roddick, Lamar Odom and Dennis Rodman. Seriously.

But the breaking news coverage of Jackson’s death provided a fascinating case study in how the media, and in particular how it is absorbed by the masses, continues to change by the day. Most notable to me were the identities of the first outlet to report the news and the last to confirm it as well as how many ways the rest of us had to learn, discuss and dissect the news in the intervening two hours., home of mutually embarrassing encounters between paparazzi and D-level celebrities, probably shed its outsider status (at least when it comes to its reputation as a news-gathering source, being owned by Time Warner makes it difficult for one to remain an outsider) for good by reporting Jackson’s death at 5:20 p.m.

The more traditional news outlets and networks followed suit over the next hour or so, but CNN didn’t declare Jackson dead until 7:25 p.m., when it got confirmation from the Los Angeles coroner. CNN’s caution reflected well upon the traditional media, but it also provided more evidence of its increasing irrelevance.

I thought it was reasonable for CNN to wait for independent confirmation, because to get something like this wrong would be a crippling blow to a network’s credibility. But taking two hours to confirm the news that the entire world was already discussing didn’t reflect well on CNN, either.

Of course, CNN and the other news networks are spending most of the day tackling and discussing more worldly issues, so should they be punished for running behind the more renegade likes of I mean, I kind of doubt Wolf Blitzer and Keith Olbermann expected to spend their shows talking about Jackson and his legacy.

That said, CNN looked hopelessly out of touch in its pre-confirmation coverage, during which it asked others about the death of a man whom it had not yet declared dead. A CNN anchor interviewed a TMZ producer, which was both ironic and a rather sad sign of surrender.

CNN also had dreadful man-on-the-street interviews in Times Square, which is the type of cheese perpetuated by small-town newspapers and TV stations trying to establish a local angle for the Super Bowl, as well as a phone interview with Jackson spokesman Brian Oxman, who was near tears and talked of hugging the crying members of Jackson’s family yet never said Jackson was dead.

That, too, was an interesting symbol of how the immediacy of the 24-hour news cycle has rendered the spokesperson largely powerless, at least when it comes to managing breaking news. CNN and Oxman would have been better off had Oxman not picked up the phone.

That 24-hour news cycle alternately sustains the all-news networks and diminishes its impact. Long gone are the days when the reader or viewer was a passive observer in the news-gathering process. Jackson’s death was the latest reminder of how the media is, now more than ever, a participatory experience in which those who consume the news are at least as powerful as those who disseminate it.

I was with my wife at her mother’s house on Long Island when I got a text from a friend in Ohio informing me of Jackson’s death at 6:02 p.m. I went online to Yahoo!, whose featured story on its front page was about Jackson being hospitalized. My mother-in-law and I then checked a few message boards we frequent, all of which had threads about Jackson’s death. Twitter had its biggest day since Election Day and there were so many Google news searches for Jackson that Google originally thought its site was being attacked.

When we got home a few hours later, I visited Facebook, like any good procrastinator, and found the status updates were predictably Jackson-themed. One friend from high school unwittingly summarized the new age of media by writing she couldn’t believe “…I learned this from reading posts on facebook instead of on the local news.”

Alas, that the traditional media had little to do with how we learned about and absorbed the news of Jackson’s death was as predictable as his death was surprising.

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