Covering A King’s Death

Posted: Friday, June 26, 2009 at 12:44 pm
By: Doug Lund
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Now would be an excellent time for congress and the president to get things done in Washington without a lot of media scrutiny.
The death of Michael Jackson has news operations putting just about everything else on hold..and that will likely be the case until Jacko is planted. 
 The many faces of Michael Jackson. Which one was your favorite?
Kim Jong il, That funny little creature running North Korea could test an A bomb in the atmosphere and it wouldn’t get as much attention as non stop reports about whether or not the king of pop was popping prescription pills which led to his premature demise..or questions about what happens to his kids now..or who’ll be doing the make-up for his funeral?
So, Lund, are you saying that Jackson’s death isn’t news?
Oh, no..I wouldn’t go that far.
CBS News reporter, Roger Mudd made that mistake 32 years ago and it just might have cost him the chance to be Walter Cronkite’s heir as Evening News anchor.That’s Roger Mudd in the middle with fellow CBS newsmenRobert Trout and Eric Severeid in 1964.
It was August 16th, 1977.  I was sitting in the Keloland newsroom when our production assistant, Michelle Lang…who was clearing the news wires..shouted out, “Oh, my god..Elvis Presley is dead!”
After the initial shock, we all went into reporter mode.. scrambling to line up stories with local angles on the death of Elvis. (Presley had performed at the Arena twice in less than a year.)
I did an interview with a Sioux Falls woman who was a huge Elvis fan and had a house full of memorabilia to prove it. She was devastated and cried uncontrollably. (great tv)
We also did a feature with a professional photographer who had dozens of photos from both Sioux Falls Elvis concerts. Plus lots of reaction from everyday folks..meandering about town..who couldn’t believe that the king was dead.
At 5:30 that night, we all huddled around a television set in our studio..anxious for details from Memphis.
“This is the CBS Evening News,” said the off camera announcer, “with Roger Mudd substituting for Walter Cronkite.”
Cue Roger…
“ Good Evening,” he said…then began blathering about the debate over the Panama Canal treaty.
What?? The king of rock and roll drops dead on his toilet at Graceland and you’re not leading with it??
We, like millions of others across the country..couldn’t run fast enough to switch channels to ABC and NBC which both gave the Elvis story extensive coverage and top priority.
I’m not sure if it was Mudd himself or some brilliant old school CBS producer who decided in his mind that Panama was more important than the death of “some overweight over-the-hill singer." But it turned out to be a public relations disaster for the Tiffany network and for Mudd in particular..whether it was actually his fault or not.
Four years later, his name was still Mudd because, when Cronkite retired, he lost the anchor job to Dan Rather..who quickly brought the CBS Evening News down to number 3 and managed to hold it there for the next 25 years.
Just like Elvis, the death of Michael Jackson is certainly newsworthy..but is it so important a story that everything else gets shoved to the back burner in order to make room for empty interviews with the likes of McCauley Culkin or Emmanuel Lewis because they might shed some light on what really went on behind the closed doors of Neverland?
I really don’t know.
What I do know is that in an atmosphere of intense competition these days, the line between tabloid journalism and informational news is pretty fuzzy and that news operations have become profit centers instead of loss leaders.
That means in order to gain and hold an give them what they WANT and right now, they think you want Michael Jackson wall to wall.
Are they right?
Hmmm, what would Roger do?

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