Death can be both a frightening prospect and a rallying point depending on your social ties and beliefs. When a person is taken away, those left behind are connected through the sudden acuity of a common fate and through other commonalities in shared experiences with the person that died and the others that loved that person. Michael Jackson touched our lives with beautiful, transcendent music from his prepubescent years through his forties. Anyone between the ages of 20-50, absolutely loves at least one of his songs. Which is why the media coverage of his death is at best confusing, and at worst terribly offensive.
I had the glove, the zipper jacket, the penny loafers with the white socks, and the Michael Jackson “action figure” that bore all the same attire. His death reminded me of how much Michael Jackson was a part of my childhood and of American culture. As with many other losses in life, I remembered the good things associated with the person once they have passed. I remember my cousin doing his patented spin in my grandmother’s kitchen, or both of us trying unsuccessfully to lean like he did in the “Smooth Criminal” video. That ended with one of us face-first on the floor; I won’t say who. I reminisce on one of my closest friends, dancing with his mother to “I Wanna Rock with You” at his wedding. She sung it to him as a toddler before bed. His music is inextricably ingrained into my life and many other lives too. Michael Jackson has become a part of American culture.
The impact of Michael Jackson is far greater than wedding songs and simple memories. He was a true global icon. Multitudes of people gathered at the rumor that he might make a public appearance. At each concert, tents were designated solely for the purpose of aiding people that fainted once he hit the stage. And, the people that attended his U.S. concerts were not minorities, they were mostly white. This alludes to the possibility that my experience with Michael Jackson may not be purely cultural. This is the most frustrating part of the media coverage of Jackson’s death. Despite his fan base being mostly white, the media coverage which was made by mostly white correspondents, chose to focus on the negative points of his career rather than celebrating the high points that made Jackson an icon. More so, the media sometimes questioned the actions of people that loved the fallen star and directed their attention to the “strange” and “careless” behavior that he displayed at the end of his career. Scott Van Pelt of ESPN questioned why the city of Los Angeles would spend money on Michael’s memorial with the city’s current financial status. I don’t think Van Pelt is a racist, but I wonder why public opinion is so often divided along racial lines. Michael Jackson, who is the best entertainer of our generation and may be the best entertainer in history, deserved a public funeral. I question if the same issues will be raised when Madonna passes away. Will she be praised for her relevance in music over the course of decades or will the media talk about the sex controversies of her youth or her affair with A-Rod? When Tom Cruise dies, will the news show clips of his stellar acting career or focus on his public rejection of psych medications, his belief in Scientology, or the “couch-surfing” incident on Oprah?
Unfortunately, the media’s disparity of positive coverage with black stars is not exclusive to Jacko. When O.J. Simpson was accused of killing his wife and her friend, the majority believed he was guilty and the minority believed he was innocent. The media went into a frenzy. After being acquitted, the media still spoke of him as criminal. Recent history may prove him worthy of media scrutiny, but he had not been found guilty of any crime until recently. Robert Blake was found guilty of murder and his media coverage was slight at best. Barry Bonds was accused of using steroids. The media followed him for months asking questions about his past acquaintances and former quotes that he made. He was bombarded with steroid questions from overzealous reporters. When Roger Clemens was accused of the same thing, the media stopped steroid coverage within 2 weeks.
This year, in 2009, another of my close friends had to talk to his 3-year old daughter about racial prejudice. One of her classmates told her she wouldn’t have any friends since she was darker than them. She was the only black child in the class. The problem started in that child’s home and lies with the beliefs of her parents, but how much progress have we made as a society if children are still subjected to archaic forms of hatred? And, how can we expect more from our children when the media sets such a low precedent for decency and equality.