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Michael Jackson, not a black or white story [updated]

June 25, 2009 |  6:23 pm

Michael-jackson It was strange watching the television news media struggle with the early reports and coverage of Michael Jackson’s hospitalization and then death. First there was a sourcing issue — though everyone gave this newspaper its due, folks at CNN, MSNBC and other outlets refused to acknowledge that it was TMZ that first reported the superstar’s death because, presumably, TMZ is a gossip website and that's just tacky.

Once the death was confirmed, another issue arose. How does one eulogize a superstar who, even without the various accusations of pedophilia, was something of a freak? Or was, as several talking heads put it, “a troubled individual.” In recent years, Jackson has been more infamous than famous, known for his increasingly alarming appearance, the charges of child molestation and his subsequent business-arrangement marriage that led to his single fatherhood.  

It’s hard to remember another celebrity death in which the crowds gathering to mourn were repeatedly compared to the crowds that gathered for the recently deceased’s sexual abuse trial.

But what’s a poor newscaster to do? Michael Jackson is perhaps the most fatally flawed historical icon since Napoleon. Al Sharpton was right to remind crowds that Jackson and his family broke a color barrier — the Jackson 5 were beloved by teenyboppers of every race and, at his height, Jackson’s fan base was international. But there is also no denying that he was a troubling figure, with his self-professed devotion to children, his queasy Neverland bubble, his strange and lavish shopping habits (Did he really buy the body of the Elephant Man? Sleep in a decompression chamber? ) and the whole mask thing. In later years he became a professional eccentric, glimpses of him in public a bit like alien sightings. 

It all made the standard news loop eulogy a little ... complicated. “Who are all these people and why are they here for this man?” MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann asked at one point, and for once he wasn’t waxing rhetorical. It isn’t that the media wasn’t willing run with the superlatives — Jackson was perhaps the most popular performer of the 1980s, with continued success in the ‘90s, the first performer to make $100 million and winner of too many awards and maker of too many hits to name. But as a Fox taped segment pointed out, it was easy to forget all that in light of all the subsequent scandal, plastic surgery and general eccentricity. The television eulogy text is supposed to run heavy on the praise, couching any criticism in endearing tones. Hours before, coverage devoted to Farrah Fawcett would have led one to believe that she was one of this country’s most significant entertainers which, God bless her, we all know she was not. But Jackson, who could lay genuine claim to such a title, had such a complicated history that unadulterated praise seemed simply inaccurate.

On CNN, a Jackson biographer predicted that drugs and anorexia would be the ultimate causes of his death and a family friend made vague accusations of enabling by Jackson’s family. Soon terms like “the King of Pop” and “one of pop culture’s greatest icons” took on a canned flavor as everyone rushed to figure out what went wrong and to point out the very obvious perils of fame and fortune. Dead only a few minutes, and Michael Jackson was already a sobering lesson to us all.

But the excavation has just begun because Michael Jackson is a national mystery, his death of Rosebudian proportions. (Reporters on every network found themselves groping when asked where his three children were or even if he still had custody.) Now, maybe we will know the truth about the man whose music moved so many, who seemed to become a spectral victim of his own fame before our very eyes, who in death will become perhaps more visible than he was in life.    

-- Mary McNamara

Photo credit: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that Fox News did not acknowledge that TMZ was the first outlet to break the Michael Jackson hospitalization. Fox News did in fact credit TMZ with the news.

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