No Gag

A massive media gag reflex has kicked in, but the Jackson story—power run amok—matters

Do you detest the Michael Jackson story? Think it's an outrage that this tabloid fare gets so much coverage when there are much more important things happening in the world? Dread that the Jackson "media circus," the O.J.-esque "feeding frenzy" we've witnessed in the last few weeks, will drag on for months, further cheapening the already rather cheesy fabric of American life?

Yes on all counts? Then you're in good company. The best, most respectable media outlets are simply appalled by the Jackson coverage too. And they're letting us know it in story after story.

If you're a respectable media outlet doing a Jackson story, there's a kind of purification rite you have to perform, in which you demonstrate that although you yourself are technically part of the feeding frenzy, you're actually very much above it. After all, you're wasting precious news hole on Michael Jackson, of all things, space that could have been filled with news that respectable folk can respect—say, Medicare reform. So some kind of face-saving measure is necessary.

Thus, while Time magazine's Jackson article last week used the same mug shot the guttersnipe tabs did to cash in on the Jackson story, the text itself opened with a deeply disdainful portrait of the media circus: "the instant prime-time TV specials; the nonstop frenzy on CNN and in the newspapers; the rapid, rabid airing of the most lurid speculation."

Right after the story broke, USA Today ran a piece on the coverage that began pointedly: "Michael Jackson took center stage in the media Thursday, dominating cable news coverage for most of the day—far ahead of a bombing in Turkey, protests over President Bush's visit to London, and rioting in Miami over free-trade talks." The paper went on to note that it wasn't just cable that was all over the Jackson story, it was The New York Times, The Washington Post, and, yup, USA Today. Senior news executives, including Bill Keller of The Times, were quoted justifying the play they gave Jackson, but it was the stark message of the opening sentence that resonated: The media have succumbed, lost their priorities, again.

As the Jackson case moves forward, I suppose we're in for a lot more of this. The media have many strange habits, but the strangest of all is the self-loathing. Every time a celebrity is accused of a heinous crime, the impulse kicks in, like a massive gag reflex. We have to cover the story, because the public seems to want it, and everyone else is doing it. Yet on some very deep level, we feel it's wrong to traffic in such stuff. Corrupt. Dirty.

But is it? We discuss these stories as if they were direct descendants of the sex-and-murder pulp teenage boys used to read by flashlight under the sheets, before porn came to television. In our horror that this is what journalism has become, we forget that when big celebrities are accused of crimes, the titillation of true crime is not the main attraction. It may be with Scott and Laci, but with O.J., Michael Jackson, and all the other stars-in-handcuffs, the driving narrative, the one that pulls the public into the story and keeps it there, is power.

Entertainers are the most powerful people on Earth. They exert enormous influence over every aspect of modern life, from how we spend our time and money to how we raise our children and think about the world. For our own sanity, we tend to live in denial of this. We walk around pretending they're just celebrities, those silly cartoon figures we shake our heads over in the grocery line.

Have you ever been in a room when an authentic Hollywood celebrity walked in? Nobody, except maybe the president—and it's a close call—inspires that kind of awe. And nobody, including the president, wields the psychic sway these people do. In a real sense, they are our rulers.

As when any ruler is accused of a horrible crime, what ultimately fascinates is not the crime itself, but the abuse of power it implies. A day or two after Jackson was arrested, there were reports that his alleged accuser in this case is a cancer patient who first met the singer in one of those dream-come-true arrangements for sick tots. This is all still foggy, and we're just talking about allegations, but on hearing this detail, you could feel the story shifting quietly into a higher gear. As it should.

Beyond serving as case studies in power run amok, these stories serve another function that the media tend to discount. They open up a space for us to think and talk more broadly about this celebrity culture and the costs it imposes, on the celebrities themselves and on us. In her Washington Post column last week, Tina Brown deftly sketched the way fame breeds behavioral excess: "In the superstar world the most corrosive virus is permission. It starts small -- permission to be rude or be late or not show up—until it seeps and extends to more and more questionable behaviors, outlandish line items, illegal tastes. The pursuit of happiness becomes an extreme sport. The gated community is where the rot sets in. Nowhere else is better than California today at producing full-service isolation: infinite permission in an infinitely large space with no repercussions, until—surprise, surprise —there are."

When we see images of Michael Jackson's motorcade racing along, shot from a helicopter, with the inevitable breathless narration, the natural impulse is to ask why. But the better question may be, why not?