July 5, 2009

Filling in for Lou Dobbs, CNN's Kitty Pilgrim asks Howard Kurtz and Robert Thompson if they think the Michael Jackson story has received too much coverage or not. They already got their answer in the poll they put up during the interview....so duh...the answer is yes. And could you manage to do this spot without using it as another excuse to show Michael Jackson footage in the background the entire time?

Transcript below the fold.

PILGRIM: Has the media gone overboard covering the death of Michael Jackson? That's the topic of our face-off tonight.

And joining me now are Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the "Washington Post" and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," also Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

And gentleman, thank you very much for being with us tonight. You know, it has this interesting dichotomy, because you're fascinated by it, and yet everyone seems to be saying, OK, maybe it's too much. But yet again, you really are very interested in each detail.

Let me start with you, Howard. What do you think is going on here? This is an interesting phenomenon, at best.

HOWARD KURTZ, REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST, CNN HOST: Kitty, the coverage is out of control, and it's becoming an embarrassment to the news business.

The almost wall-to-wall cable coverage, led by CNN, particularly at night, the network morning shows, the prime time network specials.

ROBERT THOMPSON, PROFESSOR, SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY: In the first couple of days one of most famous people in the planet dies under murky circumstances, somebody's who music touched millions, sure it's a huge story. We're now in day seven. You have the yellow breaking news banner up. There are not a lot of new developments.

But everybody looked at the numbers and said, hey, this is great. Our ratings are way up. And so everyone in the news business, particularly on television, trying to keep this story alive.

PILGRIM: And yet ratings reflect popular interest, don't they, Howard?

KURTZ: Well, sure. But if you're going to program your news network that way, you can put on naked Jell-o wrestling and do a big number.

I mean, what's being shoved aside here, Kitty? A big major U.S. incursion military offensive in Afghanistan, everything else from Al Franken. The only other story that's getting traction is Mark Sanford. Why? Because it's got sex in it.

PILGRIM: Robert, what did you think?

THOMPSON: It's true. All of this coverage is very little news. I mean, there's really one piece of data so far -- Michael Jackson died at the age of 50. The rest of it, so far, is speculation, retrospectives, reactions of people. And this is an awful lot of coverage for a very, very little bit of information.

But you know, people are talking about this survey, 65 percent of the country says there is too much coverage.

PROBLEM: Let's put it up for our viewers. It's a Pew Research Center poll. A majority of Americans think the coverage is too much, 64 percent, right there. And 29 percent say the story is the right amount. And yet -- go ahead.

THOMPSON: Yes, I mean, I think we have to look at this -- that doesn't mean that they're not watching it.

I mean, the equivalent would be, I suppose if you ask 100 people who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day the following question -- are cigarettes bad for you? My guess would be nearly all of them would answer the question yes. But they're still smoking two packs a day.

Now, everybody isn't watching Michael Jackson coverage. But while they're filling out, many of them, the "yes" box in the survey, is there too much Michael Jackson coverage, they're watching it while they're complaining that there's too much coverage that they're watching.

KURTZ: But especially on cable, Kitty. If you have an average audience of 1 million, if you get another million, the executives are breaking out champagne. But that doesn't mean most of country is quite as fixated on this.

And I disagree on this point. There have been some important developments this week, the battle over the will, the custody of the kids. If 15 minutes every hour was devoted to Michael Jackson, don't think I would have any problem.

But instead it's 50 minutes out of every hour, at least much of the day on many of the cable channels, and I think that is way overboard.

But at same time, I know what the dilemma is -- if you go away from this now, cut off the debate, you go to Afghanistan, those numbers will drop.

PILGRIM: Robert, you do say, you study popular culture. You do say there's an upside to all of the coverage, don't you?

THOMPSON: Well, whenever there's a death of a major figure, we get all of these retrospectives and all of these look back and everything. And, let's face it, Michael Jackson was a really important part of the American cultural landscape.

And there are a lot of people, my students included, who didn't know about those Motown years, who didn't know about a lot of the things that's being covered here.

So whenever we get one of these blanket coverage kinds of things, a lot of people do learn a lot of things because they have no other choice.

And again, I would agree, this deserves to be covered. I just don't think that in the best of all possible worlds or even in the OK of all possible worlds, that it should get anywhere near the coverage it does at the expense of some really important stories that are finding themselves in the little text crawls at the bottom of yet another replay of the Motown 25 performance of "Billie Jean."

PILGRIM: Howard, how does new technology factor into this? You have all of these platforms where you can see it simultaneously. Doesn't that add to the impact of seeming to have it everywhere at once?

KURTZ: Oh, sure. The idea that you can get this on every Web site in America, on Twitter, on your Facebook page, does add to the ubiquity of it.

But I think at same time, part of what's driving this, because look at death of other famous entertainers, maybe George Harrison, I think, was a more important figure. But with Michael Jackson, you have the essentially weirdness, and of course the child molestation allegations. He was a very controversial figure, his musical legacy aside.

And so that is playing out, to some degree, with the battle over the will and the children and were drugs involved, and all of that.

I'm interested in that. I just think the volume has gotten so high and the coverage has got so relentless, that I think it is turning off a lot of people who are not tuning in or maybe dipping in for five minutes say, hey, wait a minute, there are other things go on in the world.

PILGRIM: Robert, some final thoughts on this?

THOMPSON: Well, for one thing, I think, we should have seen this coming for a mile. We knew that if a story like Michael Jackson's untimely death ever happened we knew exactly what would happen. We've seen this happen before. We know how this cycle works.

And there is absolutely no evidence in the way the news industry is currently operating in this country that this isn't going to happen over and over again when these kinds of stories break.

This shouldn't have surprised us, and we should -- we can just wait, because it's going to happen again. There's no doubt about it.

PILGRIM: All right, gentlemen, thank you very much for your thoughts of this very important topic. Robert Thompson, Howard Kurtz, thank you.

Coming up, we are covering other stories tonight, including thousands of marines hit the ground to drive the Taliban out of southern Afghanistan.

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