At 4:24 p.m. PST, CNN confirmed that Michael Jackson, the King of Pop and one of the most significant entertainment figures of the past 50 years, was dead.
This news was sad, but it wasn’t surprising to people who had been watching Fox News, which confirmed at least 10 minutes earlier.
The two most popular and allegedly significant forces in TV news probably shouldn’t be cocky about how they handled the afternoon’s pop culture tragedy, though.
Although the mainstream media so often uses TMZ as the punchline for jokes, calling it a repository for information about Paris Hilton’s underwear and Miley Cyrus’ boyfriends, the website has solid confirmation on Jackson’s death at least a half-hour before anybody else was willing to dare making the same call. And when a source more allegedly reputable than TMZ was prepared to confirm Jackson’s death, it was the Los Angeles Times, or at least latimes.com.
Meanwhile, CNN and Fox News and MSNBC scrambled to cover their rears. No network was prepared to call Jackson dead on TMZ’s say-so and even The Los Angeles Times proved insufficient confirmation, as CNN and Fox News were both still using the latimes.com report that Jackson was in a coma at least 10 minutes after the site had changed over to reporting death.
CNN filled space with entertainment reporter Jim Moret repeating information about Jackson’s past scandals and even brought on a health reporter without an iota of knowledge on the situation to tell us that “cardiac arrest” is more serious than a “heart attack.” Fox News initially opted not to cut away from Glenn Beck rambling about an alleged scandal involving the DNC and then had Greta Van Susteren and several different anchors vamping and sneering about Jackson’s past legal dramas.
As go-to sources for information, the cable news hubs failed viewers completely, never adding anything that the truly curious couldn’t have gotten online earlier. At one point, just moments before the Los Angeles coroner confirmed for CNN, the network was interviewing an editor from TMZ, an act of desperation that very clearly said, “We dropped the ball on this story. How were you able to get it?”
CNN got actual confirmation nearly two hours after TMZ and only then removed “Reports:” from its ticker. This is a major news-gathering organization, right? But no Los Angeles-based journalists for CNN were able to learn first-hand what TMZ had been trying desperately to tell them.
Even once the unfortunate reality of the situation had become evident, there were odd glitches in the cable coverage of the moment. While MTV switched over to Jackson videos and acknowledgement on its East Coast feed, the network Jacko was instrumental in shaping continued to air repeats of “Futurama” and “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory” for West Coast viewers, without any ticker or chyron for viewers on the left coast.
The major networks did what they could and CBS’ news arm was even co-credited with breaking the story by CNN, but they weren’t ahead of the online curve either.
NBC, CBS and ABC moved with relative haste to set aside primetime programming blocks for Jackson tributes, an act made more complicated by the already-planned tributes to actress Farrah Fawcett, whose death had been expected for weeks. Both NBC and ABC set aside two hours for both tributes. As of the posting of this article, CBS is only expected to honor Jackson, with a 10 p.m. hour.
The networks are pulling out their big guns. Barbara Walters and Martin Bashir are anchoring ABC’s “20/20” special on Jackson, while NBC has Ann Curry and Meredith Vieira on the job. It remains to be seen if the ongoing coverage into the evening will make up for how badly the small screen was scooped on the afternoon’s breaking news.