Why Michael Matters

January 12, 2004
Michael Jackson was an electrifying entertainer, and he continues to fascinate, whether it’s his self-mutilation or his alleged dalliances with the under-aged. Now he’s at the center of a nasty dust-up between two of the country’s best news organizations, CBS News and The New York Times.

Last month, the Times alleged that CBS essentially paid Jackson $1 million to appear on its flagship news magazine, 60 Minutes. Jackson had been booked for a network entertainment special, which was to air in November, coinciding with the release of his latest greatest-hits album. But by then he was mired in a fresh pile of sexual misconduct charges.

So, the Times reported — and this, the network acknowledges — CBS said it couldn’t possibly broadcast the special “with an elephant in the room,” and told Jackson he had to clear the air on the molestation accusations before the special could run.

The amounts in play aren’t clear. CBS had advanced Jackson $1.5 million, and he was supposed to end up with $5 million if the special aired. The network vigorously denies that it offered a sweetener for the 60 Minutes gig, and denounced The Times for basing its $1 million allegation on a disgruntled former Jackson associate.

Still, even without additional pay Jackson unquestionably had a strong financial incentive for submitting to the interview. At a minimum, if the special didn’t air he would have had to repay CBS his $1.5 million advance.

So he talked. And his 60 Minutes gig turned out to be a vastly more popular show than his entertainment special. An estimated 10 million-11 million viewers watched the special, which was an armchair testimonial to Michael’s vast talent and not a fresh performance. By comparison 18 million watched him on 60 Minutes — 12 percent better than its weekly average — as Michael, predictably, told correspondent Ed Bradley he was blameless.

In the aftermath of the Times story, CBS was roundly condemned for selling its soul.
The focus of criticism was the payment allegation.

There’s a longstanding tradition among mainstream U.S. journalists that they don’t pay sources. Why? The principled reason is that the prospect of payment might very well influence what the source says. If money corrupts the information, the public suffers.

The ban was always a bit simple-minded, though it does save publishers money. It prohibits only one of the numerous benefits that sources may derive from talking to reporters — which include prestige, vindication, career advancement, vanity, revenge. Pursuing them affects what’s reported, routinely and powerfully.

Accordingly, stories often have their own back-stories, involving negotiations with sources over exclusivity, prominence, visuals, the promise of a scoop next time if the source likes the treatment this time.

News is built out of self-interest, and just because cash doesn’t change hands doesn’t mean benefits aren’t conferred or denied.

So if there’s corruption in the Jackson affair, the money is the least of it. Michael wasn’t going to say anything anyway. An interview in which he protests his innocence has all the news value of an Easter egg roll. It illuminates nothing, advances the story of his alleged molestation not a millimeter.

CBS may claim that the interview cleared its obligation to the public to hold an accused celebrity accountable, but that’s plain silly. Michael was, in the parlance of the interview business, a prime “get,” and CBS had the leverage to get him — just as it tried for a sit-down with Jessica Lynch by offering her a book deal and a TV movie.

The more disturbing corruption has to do with why such a great news outfit was squandering time and treasure on such stupidity. It doesn’t help that CBS is among those organizations forced into marriages of convenience with movie studios, publishing houses, cable owners and the like that they’re corporately expected to play nicely with. Synergy and convergence are the buzzwords.

But the rise of ratings-driven nonfiction TV is broader than ownership consolidation. And it’s a uniquely potent threat to journalism, since it looks so much like news reportage that the viewer may overlook the fact it ignores the most important duty of news: telling us what matters. That 60 Minutes should so resemble tabloid TV that the Jackson interview fit right in is the true price of corruption.

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