Recently, some MSNBC contributors were discussing the coverage of Michael Jackson's death, on MSNBC's new "Dr. Nancy" show. The discussion centered around two assumptions (the first with support from polling data): 1) that the coverage would be viewed differently by whites and blacks; and 2) that the coverage was all about respecting, and mourning, Michael Jackson as an artist.
One of the commentators said "I don't understand why all these white Americans are saying, 'It's too much.' This is a major American story. It's not that the media shoving it down our throat, people want to hear about it."
The statement was based on polling data which found a greater percentage of whites feeling that the coverage was too much, than blacks. While this may be the case, clearly, there are plenty other factors other than race, that can explain a reaction to the amount of coverage. Beyond that, the assumption that the obsession with Jackson's death is simply a matter of respect and mourning, seems awfully naive.
So much of the coverage is so full of sensationalism, desperately clinging to any morsel of personal information about Jackson and those around him, that any sense of propriety - of the normal boundaries that should be observed in a time of grieving - is lost.
Boundaries like between the private and the public; the professional and the personal; between respect for Jackson's talent and sadness at the tragedy of his life.
It's long been a truism that supermarket tabloids succeed because they feel better about themselves, when they can see exalted celebrities brought down to size. Now scientific evidence backs that up: gossip is a status enhancer.
The result is obsessive coverage amounting to lurid glee at the bizarre twists and turns of Jackson's life and death, masquerading as respectful mourning. Besides cutting down on the quantity, the coverage would have been less depressing, if it had honored Jackson's accomplishments, while putting the tragic aspects of his life in a broader context. Deepak Chopra came close to that with his appearance on Larry King, where he talked not only about MJ's alleged abuse as a child, but about the patterns that are found in child abuse victims in general. What if the media had used Jackson's tragic life and death as an excuse to deal, in depth, with the issues of child abuse and its connection to drug abuse and other forms of self destruction.
Then, at least, we could have gleaned some value and meaning from this senseless loss.
By all accounts, Michael Jackson was a very sick man. The reports of drug abuse, the plastic surgeries, his physical illnesses, his strange relationship with children and with the women in his life (aside from any allegations of sexual abuse), paint a horrendous picture. By exposing these tragedies, along with the gruesome aspects of his death - down to the location of his body and brain - to the normal tabloid treatment, we end up celebrating the dysfunction along with the art.