Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Breaking News

There were times in my newspaper career when I would work a shift so devoid of news, I went home exhausted just from being poised like a puma waiting to jump on the breaking story that never happened.

Then there were periods like the last few weeks when every hour sent a shock wave through the newsroom.

A near revolution in Iran. The deaths of Michael Jackson, FarrahFawcett, Ed McMahon, yes, and even pitchman Billy Mays.

Bernie Madoff gets sentenced to a term so long we may be colonizing Mars when it expires. Ditto the California budget crisis. The governor of South Carolina opts for tan lines over family values. And the Supreme Court tinkers with the Civil Rights Act.

We were promised long hours and lousy pay but this is ridiculous.

The fact of the matter is that all of us who get involved in this business are basically adrenalin junkies for whom a good story is its own reward. Fueled by pots of coffeeand the best of intentions, no day is too long, no quest too impossible in pursuit of a story.

What's interesting about this mega outbreak of news is that is occured in an era of cut-to-the-bone reporting ranks, shrunken budgets and reduced pay, making it an unprecedented challenge.

For the most part, our bruised and battered media rose to the challenge.

Farrah Fawcett was remembered as a pin up girl who did for curling irons what Elizabeth Taylor did for diamonds. More importantly, she didn't just stand around looking beautiful. She could act.

Ed McMahon couldn't act, sing or dance. But he found fame as the perennial sidekick, a sort of Gabby Hayes to Johnny Carson's Hopalong Cassidy. Despite his booming laugh, I always thought Ed looked a little uncomfortable in his role. I mean, here was a former Marine Corps aviator pitching dog food and making small talk with ditzy actresses. But in the end, he was front page news.

Bernie Madoff got 150 years. I hope he serves every minute. Yet his lawyer, interviewed on TV, said he thought the punishment was too harsh because Bernie surrendered instead of fleeing. Well, so did Al Capone. But the interviewer didn't pursue it.

Then there is Michael Jackson.

His death was Princess Di, Anna Nichol Smith and OJ all rolled into one. It blew every other story off the front page.

Michael was an artist, no doubt about it. Although he hadn't been in the spotlight musically in recent years, he has sold an estimated 750 million records.

But there was more at play here. Jackson's bizarre life-style and appearance, the accusations of pedophilia, the never ending fiancial problems, held the public's rapt attention as much as his music.

He was fragile. He was ill. And watching Michael Jackson's life unfold was like watching a slow motion train wreck. You couldn't avert your eyes.

It was a wreck we've seen before. We've watched Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis unravel in public.

We weep and wait for the next generation of tragic heroes.

And they come. Kurt Cobain. Chris Farley. Heath Ledger.

And when they die, especially under mysterious circumstances, it's a big story.

Maybe too big. About two-thirds of the public (64%) say news organizations gave too much attention to the death of the 50-year-old performer. About three-in-ten (29%) say the coverage was the right amount. Only 3% say there had been too little coverage, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

We weren't united in our grief. Blacks followed the death of the African American singer more closely than the population as a whole, the Pew survey found. Eight-in-ten African Americans say they followed news about Jackson's death very closely, compared with 22% of whites.

Despite these finidings, ratings for the cable networks and web site traffic was at an all-time high.

When it came to Michael, we were all Paparazzi.

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