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Jackson Coverage Debated on Air, in Print

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

How Much Is Enough, and Which Michael to Highlight?

The Jackson Five: Baad (1971)

How Much Is Enough, and Which Michael to Highlight?

The sudden death of a pop icon dominated USA Today's weekend edition.By the time the weekend after Michael Jackson's death concluded, some journalists were wondering aloud whether there had been too much coverage, while others were ramping up more.

For some, the question was how to balance the many aspects of Jackson's life: his cultural legacy, the seamy allegations of child abuse, the circumstances of his death Thursday at 50 after cardiac arrest and the possibility that prescription drugs might have played a role in his early demise.

On Saturday, the hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, tried to hit all the angles.

That issue featured:

A front-page reminiscence by longtime pop critic Robert Hilburn; a story about Jackson's final rehearsal at L.A.'s Staples Center; the main news story, "Probe turns to prescription drugs," a story about the fans who paid tribute at various L.A.-area sites; ex-wife Lisa Marie Presley recalling that Jackson, referring to her father, Elvis Presley, predicted he was "going to end up like him, the way he did"; a story on the television coverage; an account from London on international reaction; the prospects for a custody battle over the children; a story that "Celebrity magazines shift into overdrive"; a letter to the editor and an opinion piece by Tim Rutten about whether there was too much Jackson coverage.

That was just in the first section of the paper.

The Business section weighed in with stories about the rush for Jackson records and other memorabilia; the fate of Neverland, the Jackson ranch; tourists flocking to various Jackson sites and the news that the producers of the new Sasha Baron Cohen movie, "Bruno," hastily cut out jokes about Jackson.

(Contrary to many reports, "Thriller" is the second best-selling album of all time, not the best-seller, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.)

The Calendar section offered separate commentary on Jackson from its pop music, dance and television critics, a recap of the "Motown 25" special and reviews of his albums. All of this was anchored by a display essay, "Fortress of Solitude: The King of Pop Turned Isolation Into the Ultimate Art," by Reed Johnson.

Many of the front pages of Friday's papers were artfully designed to serve as keepsakes, and the Washington Post said that posters would be available. There were exceptions to the extraordinary displays, of course. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of Little Rock, which in 2005 had consigned the death of civil rights icon Rosa Parks to the obituary pages, this time limited Jackson's front-page exposure to a small box above its nameplate.

The Boston Herald was forced to issue an apology Friday "to those who were offended" for the tabloid's front-page headline, "Fade to Blacko," placed under Jackson's smiling face, WHDH-TV reported.  Some Bostonians called it disrespectful at best and racist at worst.

Time announced it would publish Monday a special commemorative edition in addition to its regular offering. "For the special commemorative issue, TIME spoke with Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Nancy Reagan, Lenny Kravitz, Jesse Jackson, Tommy Mottola, Berry Gordy, Spike Lee, Sheryl Crow, Anjelica Huston, Clive Davis, Al Sharpton, Deepak Chopra, Kobe Bryant, Lance Bass, Oscar De La Hoya, Savion Glover, A.R. Rahman, Peter Gabriel, John Mayer and more," a news release said.

Time magazine put out a Jackson commemorative edition.

The BET Awards show, telecast Sunday night, was thrown into "total overhaul" by Jackson's death, Sandy Cohen reported for the Associated Press. The event became a celebration of Jackson. New Edition kicked off the show with a medley of Jackson 5 songs, and others wore Jackson-inspired fashion tributes, as Derrik J. Lang of the AP reported. Jackson's sister Janet Jackson and father, Joe Jackson, attended, to thank fans and celebrate Michael, Kelley L. Carter wrote for USA Today.

Bryan Monroe, who resigned in April as editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines, surfaced on National Public Radio and multiple times on CNN to discuss his 2007 interview with Jackson celebrating the 25th anniversary of Jackson's "Thriller" album. A photo of Monroe with Jackson bumped one of Monroe with President Obama on Monroe's Web site.

"We're still all over the White House and Iran and everywhere else we need to be, but this is one of the biggest stories on the face of the Earth," said Lou Ferrara, the news organization's vice president and managing editor for entertainment news, Tina Susman reported in the L.A. Times. "How did he die? What happened? What were his final days? These are things people want to know."

"And then there's coverage of the funeral itself. 'This is Michael Jackson,' Ferrara said. 'He may have left instructions for something so off the wall - no pun intended - that it'll become a huge story in itself.'"

The race issue was not always prominent in the coverage, but CNN, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press all weighed in, as did a number of black columnists, giving their perspectives as African Americans, as fans and as journalists.

Clarence Page, syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist, wrote, "After Michael Jackson's death, those stories give new meaning to his songs about the 'Man in the Mirror' and how 'it don't matter if you're black or white.' Was he trying to convince us or himself?"

"The choice I made was perhaps a cowardly one," wrote columnist Wendi C. Thomas of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, "but I conveniently segmented Jackson in my mind - pre-perv and post-perv. I would not and could not abandon the man who supplied the pop soundtrack to my childhood."

Greg Braxton of the Los Angeles Times quoted Lee Bailey of

"Ultimately, Jackson's star power, not his race, was the defining factor among most blacks, said Bailey of the Electronic Urban Report.

"'The bottom line was, this is Michael Jackson,' he said. 'He was given a pass. When someone has a God-given talent that is so exceptional, that puts them in a whole other category. By and large, black people never stopped embracing Michael Jackson. He still enjoyed a great deal of support, and they were looking forward to this tour, because it was about getting a second and third chance.'"

"Successful blacks - from Sammy Davis to Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama - have often been accusing of losing touch with their roots," explained Jesse Washington of the Associated Press. "But Jackson also had to contend with historic changes in the music industry: Blacks were finally being marketed to the mainstream, while testosterone-fueled rap music was about to create a new definition of blackness - one that definitely did not include the increasingly pale, androgynous and childlike Jackson."

The Boston Herald apologized for this headline."If you are a journalist, and you are a journalist of a certain age, covering Michael Jackson meant reconciling your personal childhood feelings about the Gloved One at the same time you were covering what amounted to a freak show," wrote Teresa Wiltz on "Because, let's face it, in the later years before his death yesterday at age 50, that's what you did, reporting about the King of Pop. You were on Wacko Jacko watch: Would he show up to court in his pajamas? Was he really wearing lipstick? Do you think he did it? All that talent, all that genius, almost obscured by all that drama."

Media critic Amy Alexander wrote in her new online column, "A thick weight of self-hatred, internalized racism, and sexual identity crises are as much a part of the story of Michael Jackson as are his soaring artistic achievements, criminal troubles, and global cross-cultural appeal. Black people could sense the first part of that equation within Michael, even if we didn't share it with the world. But maybe now we will. The same kind of self-hatred and other internalized emotional toxicity that combined to take Michael Jackson down has largely proved too messy and complex for discussion in public, especially by the media."

"For some, it was more comfortable to remember the 'old Mike,' or 'black Mike'" wrote Steven Gray on, "the one with the Afro, wide nose and plump cheeks, before he morphed into something resembling a gaunt white woman. Some sociologists may argue that our collective reluctance to demonize or abandon MJ at the height of his troubles was rooted in our inability to confront issues like child abuse and gender identity. But our loyalty stems from something else.

"First, his talent. Second, the arc of his biography struck a chord: his persistent struggle for respect and redemption - the comeback attempts, the efforts to surmount his recurring financial crises - mirrored the battles that many of us endure daily, albeit in a smaller scale. Even the question of his pigmentation became a metaphor for the black experience in America: he was not comfortable in his own skin, just as black men have not been made to feel comfortable in ours for most of this country's history."

Perhaps most surprisingly, because it came on a mainstream Sunday talk show, ABC's "This Week," cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson slipped this into the roundtable discussion: "The tragedy is that later on in his life, with all these accusations, the whitening of his skin and the Europeanization of his image, he lost what he was on the inside, and that was a metaphor for black people written in large."

Introducing that discussion with scenes from Jackson's life, "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos voiced what others on Sunday were thinking: "Seeing all this, I was wondering whether we're all paying too much attention to this," he said.

On CBS' "Face the Nation," Bob Schieffer devoted his commentary to Jackson.

"So what does the wall-to-wall commotion over the death of Michael Jackson tell us?" he asked.

"Yes, we recognize his talent and that his music had an enormous impact. When he was young and I was younger, I took my children to one of his concerts. It was a fine show.

"But his tortured existence, his devotion to excess, celebrity, and, for want of a better word, 'weirdness' would seem most of all to be an example of how not to live one's life.

"Down through history, those who have produced great art or accomplished great feats have not always been great people. The artist Caravaggio was a murderer. Van Gogh was insane. Barry Bonds hit a lot of home runs.

"There is nothing new about separating art from the artist, celebrating one without necessarily approving the other. But even as I tried to think of it in that way, the events of last week still left me feeling uncomfortable about the whole thing.

"Pop icons and American heroes are not one and the same."

On CNN's media show "Reliable Sources," host Howard Kurtz brought in Carlos Diaz, correspondent for the entertainment news show "Extra," Eric Deggans, television and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, and Diane Dimond, investigative journalist and author of, "Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case."

"Have the media in this," Kurtz asked, "all of the excess of coverage that's coming out now - have they underestimated his importance in part as a racial trailblazer who was making music videos just when this was becoming popular in the '80s and a lot of the stars were white?"

Deggans replied, "Oh, yes. I mean, you know, one of the interesting things about Michael Jackson is - I mean, that's why we're talking about him. There's so many branches to this story.

"This is a man who had a hit in literally every decade that he was a performer - the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, even to the turn of the new century. And the interesting thing about his emergence in the '80s, for example, was that he was one of the biggest artists after the disco boom to reunite white and black audiences, because the backlash against disco kind of, you know, separated white and black audience into punk and disco. And all of a sudden, he comes along and he forces MTV to start featuring black artists, and also brings these disparate audiences together.

"I was a pop music artist myself in the late '80s, and I can tell you, I was playing clubs in Kentucky and Tennessee , and places that normally no black person could go without a bodyguard. But they loved us because they had been conditioned by Michael, and later Janet, to accept black artists."

"Let me just throw some numbers at you here for cable ratings on Thursday night, when we learned of the death," Kurtz said at another point. "CNN up 937 percent at one point; Fox up 243 percent; MSNBC up 330 percent."

"Diane mentioned the network newscasts, which led Thursday night, Friday night, of course, with Michael Jackson. Back in 1977, CBS led with another story, the Panama Canal instead of Elvis' death. And it just seems like everybody is on this Jackson bandwagon.

"It's because people are talking about it. I mean, you know," Diaz said.

"Is that the standard?" Kurtz asked. "Is that the media standard, whatever people talk about becomes the most important story?"

Diaz: "Yes. It is now."

"We've got to go," Kurtz continued. "The question is whether we'll all be talking about this a week, two weeks from now. And if so . . ."

Diaz: "Yes, we will. Yes, we will."


From the Washington Post, July 19, 1971

The Jackson Five: Baad

By Richard E. Prince

Two high-volume acts and a ubiquitous 15 minutes of rhetoric from the head of the [University of Maryland's] Black Student Union served only to whet their appetite. The concert had long been sold out. "Bring on the Jackson Five." "We Want the Jackson Five," insisted the audience.

Lead singer Michael Jackson, front right, and his brothers, from left, Tito, Marlon, Jackie and Jermaine.The lights flickered, and there was a huge, cacophonous roar. A roar that only 15-year-olds can deliver. The screams drowned out what must have been the loudest music in the Washington area Saturday night. The screams didn't stop and neither did the music, for a solid hour.

Girls who had collected all the Jackson Five's singles, all of their albums, and as many of their pictures as they could, fainted. Others shook in their seats. More just screamed, but a large number were hypnotized.

When it was over, they pronounced it "dynamite" and "together." They didn't demand an encore, for they and the Jackson Five had done it all.

Five brothers, sons of a Gary, Ind., factory worker, the Jackson Five are to young blacks today what the Beatles were to young whites in the '60s.

They a million records a month, says their record company, Motown of Detroit. Soul magazine, which chronicles the latest music news for young blacks around the country, now has a special page in each issue devoted to the group.

In the pages of Soul, the Jackson Five are "the Beautiful Brothers" and "America's Most Soulful Family."

Teen-agers write Soul about how much they'd like to meet the Jackson Five, and debate which member is the best looking.

The Jackson Five are the kind of group mothers bring their children to see, that girl friends talk about in high school. No other artists sell as many records in this area, according to Aubrey Moore, general manager of Schwartz Brothers, record distributors.

Moore says the Jackson Five sell at least 125,000 copies of each single in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, which would make this area account for more than a tenth of their nationwide sales.

When a local soul music station asked listeners to name their favorite tunes of 1970, records by the Jackson Five placed in something like four of the top five positions.

The Jackson Five are a synthesis of every good soul music group, reduced in age by about five crucial, adolescent years.

The Five array themselves on stage dressed in bright, psychedelic colors, with the guitars, Tito, 17, and Jermaine, 16, on each end.

The tallest and eldest, Jackie, 19, in bright green pants with a red and blue spangled shirt, is in the middle, flanked by Marlon, 13, and the lead, Michael, 12.

There is an organ off to the side, and a set of drums behind them all. Everything is amplified to the maximum, both the music and the audience.

While the music gets louder, the three in the middle start their steps. Piston-like, they push their feet to the floor to rising screams. They pause after each push to more screams. Girls hug each other and cover their faces. Others strain to see. Some rush forward with cameras.

Michael walks around the stage, like a little Jackie Wilson, bending his knees and holding the microphone out, screaming words like, "When we were back in grade school, you wanted to be it," but sometimes the words get lost in the commotion.

They ease from one hit to another without pause, keeping the music as loud as ever. They do all the million sellers: "I Want You Back," "ABC," "Never Can Say Good Bye," "The Love You Save," and one about their days in Gary, "Goin' Back to Indiana."

The audience knows all the words, and the first few bars of any tune are instantly recognized.

"Man, it was dynamite," said Darryl Goode, 16, a student at Arlington's Yorktown High School. "They got the songs, they got the music. They got everything right."

"It was baaad, definitely," said the Angie Scott, a 15-year-old student at McKinley Tech in Washington. "Bad," of course, means good in this subculture. "The dancing, the singing, everything. The group, they just got it together," said Angie.

The Five have their own explanation. "We came out with records with the new style — bubblegum soul," says Tito. "It's a sound that no other group has."

"That music, at least on records, features heavy use of pianos, horns, strings and drums, interspersed with brotherly harmony and the 12-year-old voice of Michael guiding it all.

When interviewed in their suite at the Washington Hilton, they talked easily, often correcting each other, and never seemed to tire.

At their new 20-room house in southern California, the Jackson Five have to rake leave and do chores around the house, they say. They like swimming and basketball, and must be in bed on road tours like this (37 one-nighters in 62 days) by midnight.

The group plays only during the summer, on holidays and weekends, and then only one-nighters. A tutor and their father, Joe, a former machinist with Inland Steel in East Chicago, Ill., travels with the group. Their father says he wouldn't let them out of his sight.

In 1964, three of the brothers were doing talent shows around Gary, doing songs like "What'd I Say." Motown's prima donna, Diana Ross, on a talent hunt, brought the group to Motown in 1969 and they clicked instantly. [Ross' "discovery" proved to be Motown propaganda.]

They talk proudly of their new cartoon series, scheduled for Saturday mornings on ABC this fall, and of their upcoming one-hour television special. They conclude the interview, to a man, with soul handshakes.

Father Joe, who has nine children all told, (a younger son, Randy, 9, is being groomed to join the group in 1972, when it becomes "the Jackson Five Plus One"), says the group was delighted to pass by the White House on their way to the Hilton.

It was their first visit to Washington, and Jackson was impressed because he noticed "quite a few colored people here have important jobs. That's a great thing. From what we can see, everything is colored here."

The Jackson Five, said their father, put on "one of their best shows here. It was a warm crowd, and there were lots of fans. That's what the Jackson Five appreciated. They'd like to come back."

Can the group be asked what they thought? Sorry, says their father, but it is past midnight and they are all in bed.

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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