Why reporters won't shut up about their encounters with Michael Jackson.

Media criticism.
July 1 2009 7:03 PM

"Let Me Tell You About the Time I Interviewed Michael Jackson"

Why reporters won't shut up about their encounters with the dead pop star.

Michael Jackson. Click image to expand.
60 Minutes reporter Ed Bradley interviews Michael Jackson

I never interviewed Michael Jackson, making me one of the world's few journalists who couldn't capitalize on the singer's death last week by writing a rush piece about my encounter with him.

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. mined an interview he had with Jackson almost 30 years ago for a piece last week. "He was an odd guy," Pitts wrote. For a June 28 article, the Washington Post's Kevin Sullivan reached back to a 30-minute encounter he and his family had in 1998 with Jackson in Seoul, South Korea. "We liked Michael Jackson," Sullivan stated. The Los Angeles Times' retiredpop critic, Robert Hilburn, recalled his last conversation with Jackson—a decade ago—in which the performer hung up on him. "The stage was his sanctuary," Hilburn testified.

In Slate's sister site The Root last week, Teresa Wiltz described chasing Jackson around Capitol Hill in 2004 for the Washington Post and getting to ask him one question as he slipped away in an elevator. "When are you going to Africa?" Wiltz asked. "Hopefully soon," Jackson replied as the doors closed. Reporter Linda Massarella filed a widely reprinted piece after Jackson's death about her kids playing with his at a Calabasas, Calif., playground last spring. Strictly speaking, she didn't get an interview. She merely introduced herself as a mom. But she got this nugget: "They're beautiful," Jackson said of Massarella's children. Access Hollywood's Billy Bushblogged on June 26 that he was the last person to talk to Jackson on camera (October 2006). "He got up and danced, he sang. I was 8 feet away. Wow. I'll always have that," Bush wrote.

One veteran newsman, Jim Impoco, set the Jackson memories bar so low that he squirted out a piece—in the Huffington Post, June 28—about the time he was promised an interview of the entertainer but didn't get it. This rebuke took place in Japan in 1987.

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Of course, Jackson's death isn't the first time the press has woven a wardrobe of flimsy garments from thin threads. There's a reason natural disasters, sudden celebrity deaths, and unexpected cataclysms produce vacuous stories like these: Editors everywhere appreciate that readers always love to read about Topic A and are intent on being served truckloads of Topic A when Topic A is red hot, even if the product is dross. Had any Slate contributor told Slate's editor last week of having shared an insubstantial encounter with Jackson, I can guarantee you that the contributor would have been drafted on the spot to write a piece about his Michael moment. That Slate's editors thought Wiltz's Root piece was worthy of cover promotion in Slate on June 26 tells you all you need to know about the glass house from which I launch this stone.

So while I won't defend the Jackson noncoverage, I don't think the media are out of line for being fascinated with Jackson. He qualifies several times over as a worthy news topic, thanks to his career longevity, his commercial successes, his dependable weirdness, his cataclysmic financial affairs, and his general notoriety.

Adding to Jackson's press appeal has been his aloofness. He was never Garbo, but he pretended to be. As the interviews and noninterviews cited above indicate, Jackson gave fairly steady access to reporters;  what helped keep the press engaged was his elusiveness not as a subject but as a source. Jackson offered little that was noteworthy in his conversations except to present himself as a victim of his father's lash. Jackson's blankness—as opaque as the ghostly foundation he troweled on his face—forced the press corps to impute their theories to the null set he presented. 

The technique worked well for him and his image. The interview that got him into trouble was the one in which he attempted to express a view more complex than "we are the world," telling Martin Bashir in a 2003 broadcast that his bedroom slumbers with other people's children were a "beautiful thing." After that self-destructive interview, the opaque-flake approach no longer worked on reporters.

Only in death has Jackson's flakiness regained its power, sending journalists back to their old notebooks and clips to mine them for Jackson banalities. The lesson here is that when death arrives unexpectedly, we journalists tend to drop our standards and stuff our readers with pious lies and banalities about the deceased. The readers eat it up.

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And I haven't even mentioned the drugs! Am I losing a step? Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com or monitor my Twitter feed for updates. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Jacksonin the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.