After more than a week of mostly laudatory coverage of Michael Jackson’s admittedly significant (some would say singular) contributions to music and pop culture, the television industry strained to put Jackson’s complicated legacy into perspective.
In the surreal run-up to Jackson’s extravagant public memorial service at the Staples Center in Los Angeles Tuesday, television anchors struck a more balanced tone, acknowledging, if not quite scrutinizing, the more problematic aspects of Jackson’s life.
“A lot of people think he should not be getting the attention he is,” said Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum.
“We can’t ignore certain aspects of his life,” said NBC’s Lester Holt during a discussion with Brian Williams about Jackson’s 2005 trial and the child-sex-abuse allegations.
Williams added that there are many people—although certainly not the thousands who showed up at the Staples Center to pay their respects and possibly get a glimpse of the $25,000 gold casket—who found Jackson’s behavior “abhorrent.”
“I don’t know if that will soften in time,” Williams said.
Katie Couric opened CBS News’ coverage by noting who would not be in attendance at the memorial service: Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Elizabeth Taylor.
Surveying the procession of black SUVs, limousines and the hearse carrying Jackson’s coffin, FNC’s Shepard Smith expressed incredulity that the Los Angeles authorities would shut down miles of freeway, stranding California motorists in worse traffic than usual. “The morning rush hour is hell on wheels anyway,” Smith said, “and they’re shutting down freeways for this funeral?”
But there was no shortage of glorification. And perhaps it would have been naïve to expect otherwise.
On MSNBC, DJ Tom Joyner said the dark aspects of Jackson’s life had no place in the commemoration of his passing. “To us in radio, especially black radio,” Joyner said, “he’s more than that. He’s family. He’s a brother, and we don’t want to hear any of that other stuff.”
ABC News’ Martin Bashir, who did the infamous 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson, perhaps best captured the paradox of Jackson and, by extension, the onslaught of coverage since his sudden death on June 25.
Sitting at ABC’s anchor desk with Charles Gibson, Bashir complained that he was “demonized” for the few minutes in the Granada Television film in which he pressed Jackson about his penchant for sleeping in the same bed with young boys. The vast majority of the film, Bashir said, was “a celebration of his abilities.”
But the paradox of Michael Jackson did not go unnoticed at the memorial service. The surviving Jackson brothers sat in the front row dressed in identical single-breasted black suits, narrow gold neckties, and white sequined gloves on each brother’s left hand.
Between musical performances by Mariah Carey, Lionel Richie, Jennifer Hudson, John Mayer, Jermaine Jackson, Usher and others, friends, family and associates recalled life with Michael. A visibly emotional Brooke Shields took the podium to talk about her nearly life-long friendship with Jackson, noting that the tabloids labeled them an “odd couple.”
“There was nothing odd about it,” Shields said. “To us, it was the most natural and easiest of friendships.”
Invoking the Constitution, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said, “People are innocent until proven otherwise.”
Bernice A. King, the youngest child of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., asserted that the accusations against Jackson amounted to “persecution.”
And the Rev. Al Sharpton—looking thinner than he has in the past—delivered a fiery rebuke of the decades of innuendo and outright derision aimed at Jackson. “It was Michael Jackson that made us sing ‘We are the world’ and feed the country,” Sharpton said, adding, “And I want his children to know, wasn’t nothin’ strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with. He dealt with it anyway. He dealt with it for us.”
Closing the ceremony, Michael Jackson’s brother Marlon asked: “How much pain and ridicule can one man take? Maybe now, Michael, they will leave you alone.”
Jackson’s only daughter, Paris, had the last word. As the Jackson siblings struggled to lower the microphone for the 11-year-old, she delivered an impromptu and heartbreaking tribute to her father.
“Ever since I was born,” she said, her voice cracking, “Daddy has been the best father I can imagine. And I just want to say, I love him so much.”
The genuine emotion of a little girl sent the media into a moment of self-reflection. On CNN, contributor Donna Brazile was moved to tears.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” offered ABC’s Robin Roberts. “It was much more dignified than what a lot of people expected.”
“It does send a little bit of a message to some of us in the media that maybe we ought to tone it down, or dial it back a little bit when we criticize people,” said Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren. “There will be time in the future where we have a more critical eye. When that little girl got up and started to cry, I think that really ratcheted it up a lot for everyone.”