Are we over-doing Jackson's death?
Was he as famous as the Duke of Wellington?
There has been some debate about how much time a show like Channel 4 News should devote to a story like the death of Michael Jackson.
Both in the newsroom and, I imagine, among our viewers too. Is it really “our” kind of story? Is it really a lead story – night after night? Can it possibly be right that we currently have a bigger team in LA than we had in Tehran for the election? (But do remember you don’t need to get visas from a repressive government to enter Hollywood.)
Obviously it was vital while covering the story to try and work out some perspective on just how big a story this is.
I wasn’t a particular fan of Michael Jackson so I can’t say I was moved when I heard he was dead. Although listening to the non-stop Jackson tracks that blare out of every car, shop, and sidewalk here in LA I have realised just how many of his songs are deeply imprinted on my memory. And are actually bloody good.
But news values can’t be judged by personal taste. We have to find some more impartial standards to judge by. So try this:
Can you think of a celebrity death since Elvis that was bigger? And the parallels are a little freaky. By the end Elvis was ruined by his addiction to prescription drugs and the best of his musical career was well behind him by time he died of a sudden cardiac arrest. And had Channel 4 News been on air in 1977 I don’t think anyone would now argue we shouldn’t have devoted plenty of airtime to that story.
Obviously John Lennon was an equally huge musical icon. But the fact that he was murdered made that a different kind of news story. And since then – how many times have we seen such a truly global reaction to the death of an entertainer? It may not be quite Princess Diana or Eva Peron but as far as pop stars go I would argue that this is as big as it gets
Some younger members of Channel 4 News team have mentioned Kurt Cobain or Michael Hutchence. Big events we all remember and maybe you preferred their work. But they simply didn’t have Jackson’s global reach.
We hadn’t watched them grow up on stage from the age of eight. And quite frankly they did not record the biggest selling album of all time. Neither did Lennon or Elvis. Only Michael Jackson did. And that has to count for a lot in itself. Never mind his groundbreaking videos or famous siblings
The pathos of his life story only adds to the news value. We may have forgotten some of great musical achievements as we watched the increasingly grim spectacle that his life had become. We’d almost forgotten he was a real living person until his death showed he was just as mortal as the rest of us. It might have been uncomfortable to look at his decline and fall but it all adds to the amazing story that is the life and death of Jackson.
Who is still alive who is more famous? You could argue Stevie Wonder’s music was more influential but he simply isn’t as big a star. Madonna has as much worldwide fame and a controversial personal life that keeps her in the headlines. But her body of work just doesn’t stand up to Jackson’s.
There is certainly a strong case for saying he was the biggest black celebrity in the world. Maybe not the most famous black face – Nelson Mandela and Barak Obama might be more recognisable – but I would say he must be the best known black entertainer ever.
Maybe none of that convinces you that I should be here in LA rather than covering the climate change bill that was passed through Congress in Washington on Friday putting a limit on the carbon emissions coming from the world’s biggest polluter for the first time ever.
If that’s the case I’d make sure you don’t turn on the TV the day on Jackson’s funeral (rumours round LA suggest Wednesday). That seems set to be the biggest spectacle any of us will have seen for a very long time.