Guilty, innocent, irrelevant?

Okay, so I admit. I’ve been entirely obsessed with the Michael Jackson trial. The E! re-enactments, the motley band of celeb witnesses, the stories of Michael wearing slippers to court…Fascinating! But why? My inner conscience constantly reminds me that in the scheme of things, the story is utterly insipid. I try to pass my interest off on a sort of detached sarcasm (in the same way that hipster collegians have adopted shows like “The O.C.”), but I find my concern for the life and fate of the King of Pop strangely immutable, and it kind of scares me.

Let’s talk about Michael Jackson. I don’t know if he is a human as much as he is a strangely magnetic, wildly unpredictably, cultural abstraction. The guy surprises me at every turn, and the media eats it up. He dances on a car with an umbrella one day, and prances into court in pajamas the next. His posse includes Macaulay Culkin, Elizabeth Taylor, Geraldo Rivera, Chris Tucker, Liza Minelli, and hordes of Make-A-Wish kids. He doesn’t have a nose, real hair, or cheeks, and his children are named Paris, Prince I and Prince II (aka “Blanket”). Folks, you can’t make this stuff up.

To Michael and all of his kind: why are we so obsessed with you? Yes, you are fascinating people, but why do I care? These questions plague me every time I watch VH1 or E! for any extended period of time. More and more the question comes up on real “news” shows as well. It’s hard to watch CNN or Fox News anymore to actually figure out what’s happening in the world. It’s all Michael, Martha, Britney, Brad, Paris and so on… and we’re hooked.

I did a research paper a few years ago on the media theory known as Agenda Setting. It basically asserts that the public views the relative importance of news issues by the frequency with which they see them in the media. The tsunami disaster was all over the news for weeks, and thus people grew concerned and viewed the issue as important, even personal. Similarly devastating events like the Sudan crisis, however, received next to no coverage in the media. Thus, if you ask the person on the street how important the Sudanese plight is to them, they might respond with “Is Sudan one of those AIDS countries?”

The media plays a huge role in how we order the saliency of issues in our world. Current research in Agenda Setting theory says that the media tell us not only what to think about, but how to think about it. Research into media effects increasingly agrees with the notion that in this information age where a lot is talked about and little is said, the media have most all the power. As I reflect upon my orientation toward Michael Jackson, I begin to agree with this statement.

While the media powers up and dumbs us down, there has to be something we can do in response, right? Shun all media? Not terribly practical. Avoid television and favor print journalism? Easier said than done. The answer is probably more complex than can be addressed here, but I fancy it has something to do with learning to differentiate between entertainment and real life. They are so blurred these days.

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Neil Postman argued that civilization crumbles “when a culture becomes distracted by trivia; when political and social life are redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments; when public conversation becomes a form of baby talk; when a people become, in short, an audience and their public business a vaudeville act” (from Conscientious Objections).

If that is the case, our civilization is crumbling. I watch it happen every night on E!’s reenactment of the Michael Jackson trial, or on Access Hollywood’s breaking-news story on Britney’s dog Bit-Bit. I know I should change the channel, but it’s so hard.

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