The many unanswered questions surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, combined with the proliferation of new media where speed occasionally trumps accuracy, has produced a flurry of incomplete and at times inaccurate reports on the biggest domestic story of the summer so far. All of which has left traditional media with the task of sifting through a flood of information proffered by often dubious sources.
“This is random people throwing things up against the wall to see what sticks,” says CNN's Campbell Brown. “Who are we kidding? I'm reading the blogs just like everybody else. There's all kinds of misinformation out there.”
But the media has given a platform to an endless cycle of hangers-on and business associates who have emerged with all kinds of claims, and the blogosphere has served to further gin up the rumor mill.
“There are so many myths. There are so many falsehoods. Every blog, every tabloid has a different idea of what happened,” says Zev Shalev, executive producer of CBS' The Early Show. “And there are just a lot of people surrounding Michael Jackson and his family who aren't credible.” To help separate fact from fiction, CBS News has put Jackson biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli on the payroll as a consultant.
Good Morning America producer Tom Cibrowski says wannabe sources are “coming out of the woodwork,” but that ABC is buoyed by its experience on the Jackson beat. The network has Martin Bashir, who did the infamous 2003 documentary Living With Michael Jackson, while Diane Sawyer interviewed Jackson during his 2005 child-sex-abuse trial.
“We have relationships with many of the people involved in Michael Jackson's story: his family, his inner circle and the lawyers who represented him,” Cibrowski adds. “So we know when it's not someone reputable who's calling.”
And while a Pew Research Center survey conducted June 26-29 found that almost two-thirds (64%) of the public says news organizations gave too much attention to Jackson's death, TV ratings tell a different story. CBS' 48 Hours Michael Jackson special Picking Up the Pieces, hosted by Katie Couric, won its time slot on June 30. More than 10 million viewers watched NBC Nightly News on June 25, the day Jackson died. On June 29, ABC's Nightline, which included reports about Jackson as well as Bernie Madoff, out-rated NBC's Tonight Show and CBS' Late Show. NBC's Today posted more than 6.5 million video streams on its Website June 26, a new record.
And chances are, the saga has a long way to go. "The story still has legs, obviously," says Today Executive Producer Jim Bell. "It has a lot of interesting angles that have legal implications, from the will to the custody of the children to the estate."
So as the public continues to gobble up every new tidbit, news executives remain cognizant of the delicate balance between the pop star's considerable contributions and his bizarre personal life.
"The reality is, if it were a normal celebrity, we would say, ‘Oh, too bad, so sad, thank you for the memories,'" says Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of CBS News' 48 Hours. "But part of the nature of Michael Jackson is that as amazingly talented as he was, he was also so flawed."
Adds Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's World News: "[His life] is no mystery to his fans; all the parts of his life, including the musical genius and the more controversial parts. The manner of his death has reminded people of the more problematic areas of his life."