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The King of Pop, Charlie's Angel and the Big Bad Media Complex


Published June 26, 2009 at 11:11 a.m.

By now, no doubt everyone has heard of today's dual celebrity deaths. Michael Jackson died of suspected cardiac arrest at 50 years old and Farrah Fawcett succumbed to cancer at age 62. You'd have to be living in a cave or the Arctic Circle not to have heard the news. The national media had been talking for days of Fawcett's imminent demise, so her death was less of a shock then Jackson's, but no less sad. What does this have to do with Vermont? Nothing, but it's likely to be the main topic of conversation at offices and neighborhood baseball fields and weekend barbecues for a good while. 

I imagine today will be much like the day that JFK was assassinated, Princess Diana died in a car accident or the planes hit the Twin Towers — everyone will remember where they were when they heard the news that the King of Pop was dead. I was sitting in Uncommon Grounds, writing a story for next week's Seven Days, when I took a break to check the headlines and saw that Michael Jackson had suffered a heart attack. Shortly after that, news spread around the café that the Los Angeles Times was reporting that Jackson died at around 2:30 p.m. PST at UCLA Medical Center.

It's an odd thing how a major news event can make casual acquaintances out of complete strangers. Since I had my computer open, I was the de facto disseminator of information. I read the preliminary reports from NPR, MSNBC and the L.A. Times out loud as my fellow patrons sipped their soy lattes. My friend who was with me at the time is a cardiologist and wondered aloud how a seemingly healthy man like Jackson could have died from cardiac arrest, which apparently is not the same thing as a heart attack. What were his risk factors; was he ill; were there drugs involved? Everyone around us was speculating as well.

To get an in-depth account of what had happened, or at least something longer than a sentence or two, I tried to get on the L.A. Times website, but it was jammed full of people trying to do the same thing. It was refreshing to see that when an event of huge national and international interest happens, people still seek out the newspaper, albeit online, for confirmation and analysis. As a former daily newspaper reporter who still loves that medium, I am grateful for that.

Not a half an hour after Jackson died, NPR posted a massive obituarywritten by national arts correspondent Neda Ulaby. Obviously they had that one in the can for a while. Not everyone might know this, but major media organizations keep files upon files of obits written pre-death for politicians, celebrities and other people of some import.  These obits periodically get updated so they're ready in the event of an untimely death, such as Jackson's.

I've just finished watching Martin Bashir's "Nightline" special report onJackson's death and I'm in the middle of the Barbara Walters' "20/20" specialon Farrah Fawcett's life, filmed just days before she died. It'samazing that these shows can get pulled together as quickly as theyare.  The first show aired at 9 p.m. EST, giving the producers less than four hours to string together an hour-long program. It is impressive to say the least.

Traditional media weren't the only ones working overtime on this. As soon as Jackson's death was reported, Twitter was ablaze with people posting about it. Links were flying around and people were asking if the news was indeed true. There wasn't one Twitter post on my Tweet Deck that wasn't about Jackson. The site was so jammed with people posting about the same event that it was tough to get on it. It was then that I realized just how many people are using the micro-blogging site to get news and information, for better or for worse.

Still, when I think about getting accurate, timely information about something as captivating as Jackson's death, my first bet is always traditional media. No blogger, no tweeter, no citizen journalist can give the depth of coverage needed and wanted. I might be biased, since I ply my trade in written words that are more than 140 characters long. But it's a bias I'll happily cop to.

How have you found the coverage of these two Hollywood deaths to be? Or do you even care? I'd be interested to know.