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Michael Jackson's Death

Aired July 5, 2009 - 10:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Michael Jackson's death has become an absolute gold mine for the news business. Days after the initial shock wore off, the morning shows and the cable networks, led by CNN, seemed to crank up the volume even higher. The nightly newscasts joining the fray as well.

Hey, the ratings are good, let's have more Michael Jackson. Let's have wall-to-wall Jackson.

This, in my view, is getting out of control.

Now, there have been some newsworthy developments in recent days about Jackson's will, about the custody fight for his children, about who is the father of two of the children -- it's not the "King of Pop," it's his doctor, at least according to unnamed sources cited by "US Weekly." But much of the rest is just stirring the pot, cooking up angles about Jackson's use of drugs, Jackson's state of mind, Jackson's friends, his hangers-on, anything to keep feeding the fixation.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now more on the investigation into the death of Michael Jackson.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC ANCHOR: Michael Jackson's has put a new spotlight on the use and abuse of prescription drugs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The pop star's father insists he and his wife will be taking care of the children.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now to the latest on the Michael Jackson investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's some debate about whether or not Michael was using painkillers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michael Jackson's will, how much he's worth, who gets the money, and one big bombshell...

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, "COUNTDOWN": Michael Jackson is reportedly not his kids' biological father, but we may know who is. MONICA CROWLEY, FOX NEWS: There have been reports over decades that Joe Jackson, the father, had beat the living daylights out of these kids, and especially Michael. MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, "THE TODAY SHOW": When we come back, I'm going to take you into Michael Jackson's private bedroom. And I'm going to show you what we found, a secret room.


KURTZ: So is this news infotainment, or just plain pandering?

Joining us now in Los Angeles, Sharon Waxman, founder and editor- in-chief of; Don Lemon, a CNN anchor who has been reporting this story since it broke; and here in Washington, David Zurawik, television and media critic for "The Baltimore Sun."

Sharon Waxman, right now, much of the day, on the mornings shows, cable news, led by CNN, this is treated as the most important story in the world. Is it?

SHARON WAXMAN, FOUNDER & EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THEWRAP.COM: It's the most important story for getting ratings in the world right now. And it's the summer, and it's quiet, and we've probably had enough of the president for a while, because we've been gorged on presidential news since before the election. And this is absolute, cannot-be-avoided stories. I am not surprised at all to see wall-to-wall coverage.

KURTZ: "Cannot-be-avoided," that's a very apt phrase.

Don Lemon, you've been out there in L.A. reporting on this story. You've interviewed Joe Jackson, the father, the assistant chief coroner, and that's great. You've also been doing endless live shots and devoted most of your Saturday and Sunday evening program to this.

Don't you feel deep down that this is overdoing it?

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: No, I don't feel it's overdoing it. And I don't -- and when I hear people say that, I have to be very honest with you, Howie, I think it's elitist.

I don't remember -- I'm sure there was some criticism when there was the coverage of Princess Diana's death, but I don't think that there was this sort of criticism that we're having with Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson is an accidental civil rights leader, an accidental pioneer. He broke ground and barriers in so many different realms in artistry, in pictures, in movies, in music, you name it. So, no, I don't think it's overkill.

KURTZ: OK. He did all of those things. He also was accused of child molestation, and was a seriously weird person. But he has been dead for more than a week and we are still going almost wall-to-wall.

LEMON: Well, he has been dead for more than a week, yes, but Michael Jackson twice -- well, once, I should say, he was acquitted of child molestation. The other time it was settled out of court.

KURTZ: Right. LEMON: And if you talk to people who were involved in those cases, they don't believe that he did it. So let's put that aside.

Yes, he has been dead for more than a week, and that's why this story is still front page news. It's still, you know, in the A-block of newscasts.

We don't know how he died. There are lots of questions about how he died.


KURTZ: I want to come back to that. I want to get David in. I would differ with you, I think it's the A-block, the B-block, the C- block, the D-block, and the E-block.

David Zurawik, I've been saving some tape for you. This is CNN coverage of one day earlier this week on a number of news shows in the afternoon and evening.

Let's roll that.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: A striking new voice in Michael Jackson's death with a shocking story to tell, a nurse who says that Jackson repeatedly asked her about a powerful IV anesthesia drug.

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": The children, were they really his?

CAMPBELL BROWN, HOST, "CAMPBELL BROWN: NO BIAS, NO BULL": Tonight, up-to-the-minute developments in the Michael Jackson investigation.

KITTY PILGRIM, GUEST HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Tonight, breaking news on Michael Jackson's estate and his children.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, he was in rehearsal and planning to reaffirm his claim to the title "King of Pop." But was he ready? It depends on who you ask.


KURTZ: And that's just one day.

Now, CNN is usually the network that exercises some restraint on these big tabloidy stories.

What happened?

DAVID ZURAWIK, TELEVISION CRITIC, "THE BALTIMORE SUN": Howie, first of all, I really -- this may shock you, but I don't think the coverage has been excessive. And when we get to the Staples Center on Tuesday, we're going to have 12 days now.

This is beyond a state funeral. And yet...


KURTZ: Why is it not excessive, in your view?

ZURAWIK: I think, you know, in pop culture, in cultural studies, they say that the size of a star, the importance to the culture, is in direct proportion to how they embody contradictions within the culture. Nobody, not Marilyn Monroe, not Lucille Ball, not Elvis, embodied as many contradictions as Michael Jackson does.

Family, we want to think family is a nice place. He had a troubled family, a (inaudible) family.

Childhood. Childhood, a time of innocence, not for him.

Most of all, race. He embodies the contradictions in race in our culture like nobody else. And I think...


ZURAWIK: ... we can't walk away from Michael because until we -- until we resolve him for ourselves. Of course, we're not going to resolve him, but we don't want to let him go until we resolve some of that.

KURTZ: Go ahead, Sharon.

LEMON: He's right. He's...


KURTZ: One at a time.

WAXMAN: I don't think it has to do resolving any conflicts whatsoever. I think there is a number of things that are going on here.

One is he is a worldwide story. In the age of the Internet, what we looked at, at "The Wrap," is we're looking at kind of the media coverage of sort of glut -- sort of media coverage. It's not just television.

The first couple of days, it was an Internet story. You had online news organizations, including ours, including tiny ones like ours, or relatively small ones like ours. And the big ones, portals like Yahoo!, who had the biggest traffic they'd ever had in their lives, in their history...

KURTZ: Sure.

WAXMAN: ... on the day -- the day after Michael Jackson died.

So people around the world, that has become anybody anywhere in the world -- and we were getting comments from Dubai, from Malaysia, Indonesia, in French. It was just unbelievable... (CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: OK. Let me jump in here because I want to toss a question to Don. Hold on here.

The first couple of days, you know, the explosion of coverage, I have no problem. This was an unexpected death of one of the most famous and controversial people on the planet. And it was a guy whose music touched so many millions and all of that.


LEMON: Not one of the most famous. The most famous.

KURTZ: OK. The most famous, fine.

Once you get to day six, seven, eight, nine, we are basically awash on the airwaves with repetition and speculation.

Your thoughts?

LEMON: No, I don't think so, because our lead story today was Iran and Iraq on CNN. And it's going to be that way until Tuesday, until this goes. So it hasn't been -- it has not been the lead story every single day.

KURTZ: Don, if you look at the at the summation of the past week, certainly occasionally CNN has covered Iran, occasionally has covered Iraq. There was also a big U.S. incursion against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the lion's share of the hours, and the reason that you're not getting any sleep out there in L.A. is because it's all Jackson.

LEMON: But Howard, you have to look at it -- we spend lots of time covering Iran and Iraq. And I agree with you, we should cover those important stories. But this now is the time.

There is a time and a place for everything. This is the time and the place for the Michael Jackson coverage.

And I do have to say that your guests are absolutely right. If you look at race, African-Americans are following this coverage.

Eight in 10 African-Americans are tuning in not only to broadcast medium, but also on Twitter, on Facebook, on the social mediums, on Yahoo!. As Sharon mentioned, everywhere. They want to find coverage of Michael Jackson.

This is the quintessential American story. You have poor families...

WAXMAN: Not just Americans, it's a world culture story.

LEMON: Yes, who -- a poor family who came from Gary, Indiana, raised -- nothing, poor, came and made -- you know, became millionaires and became the biggest star in the world, and touched people socially, culturally, civilly, politically.

And he was an accidental civil rights leader, and as they say...


KURTZ: Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Hold on. Let me get control here.

Since Don mentioned the numbers, I want to put up the poll.

Let me get David, then I'll come back to you, Sharon.

A Pew Research poll this week found the coverage of Michael Jackson's death, overall, 64 percent say too much, for all of you who are telling me this is earth-shattering, 29 percent say right about, and three percent, who apparently want it directly injected it into their veins, say too little.


KURTZ: But then if you go to the racial breakdown, there is a very interesting split here, David Zurawik. Blacks, 36 percent say too much. Whites, 70 percent.

ZURAWIK: Oh, I think it's absolutely true. And eight out of 10 African-Americans say they're following this story very closely.

Howie, I think that makes an absolute difference. And I would disagree, especially in connection with race, to say we're just playing stuff over, they're just repeating it.

You know, this week, one night last week, one night, I heard Katie Couric interviewing Spike Lee. It was a "48 Hours," by the way, it got over eight million viewers. You know when you say, come on, enough already? No, she asked him about race, and she asked him about the BET Awards, and Jamie Foxx saying that Michael Jackson belonged to African-Americans.

We're having a very good conversation about race within this context.

KURTZ: OK. Well, we also had Matt Lauer...

WAXMAN: There's another issue too.


KURTZ: I was just going to say you also had Matt Lauer and Larry King at Neverland interviewing Jermaine Jackson.

But Sharon, you wanted to get in, so let me give you the floor.

WAXMAN: Well, I wanted to make another point. Yes, that secret room had long been known about and viewed and seen and all the rest...

(CROSSTALK) KURTZ: You're saying it wasn't a secret? Really?


WAXMAN: Hello? Thank you.

But no, I wanted to make a different point, which is, it just reminds me in a way of when John Lennon was -- died, was murdered so suddenly. And I remember being a young person at that time and thinking I was surprised at the overwhelming amount of media coverage at that time. So I wonder if there isn't some generational thing...


KURTZ: That may be true. But let me ask you this, Sharon, because you worked for "The New York Times," you've also worked for "The Washington Post." Now, those newspapers are -- and others, are certainly covering the Jackson story, but they're covering a lot of other things as well.

And the only other story that is getting anything near traction on television is the tale of Mark Sanford and his Argentine soul mate and the other women he may or may not have crossed the line with because, why? Because it involved sex.

So as you said at the top, is there really any way -- would we really be going so crazy over what you all say is the cultural and political and musical significance of Michael Jackson if the numbers weren't big?

WAXMAN: No, I don't think we would be. I think it's absolutely -- this is a ratings story, this is about business. And it's easy. I mean, it's an easy decision for every news network to make. Absolutely.

ZURAWIK: Howie, The numbers are astronomical. Howie, the answer...

LEMON: They are.

ZURAWIK: ... is, just as Sharon said, no, we wouldn't if it wasn't -- if it weren't these kinds of numbers in the summer -- you know, you can do eight million with "48 Hours" in the summer? Well, let's do it again tomorrow night!

KURTZ: All right. CNN won the...

LEMON: Yes, but the numbers reflect a direct interest in the people from this story. And part of being a news organization, part of covering news is covering the public interest. And people are interested in the story.

KURTZ: I'm going to challenge that. And here's what I say. There is no question there is a lot of public interest in this story. I mean, CNN won the...

WAXMAN: Yes, difference between public interest and the public interest. Not the same.

KURTZ: Well, I wasn't even going to go there.

WAXMAN: Public interest or the public interest.

KURTZ: CNN won the first couple of nights in the cable competition. And I'm sure executives, and this is a presumption on my part, said, let's keep doing this, the numbers are really good. That "breaking news" banner has been up there for hours and hours and hours.

But Don Lemon, you know that in cable, if the average audience at any given time might be, say, one million, and suddenly two million are tuning in, the producers are popping champagne corks. But that doesn't mean the whole country is fixated on this. And judging from comments on my Facebook page and elsewhere, there are a lot of people who really love CNN and its dedication to news who think this is just too much.

LEMON: Well, I'm not denying that. It is a business. I mean, come on, let's be real about it. I don't think that anyone, any producer or reporter has had a chance to pop a champagne cork later. That may come on Wednesday when this is all done.


LEMON: But at this point, no, no one has had a chance to do that.

But yes, I think that, you know, as I said, we do have to realize that it is a business. And had the numbers not been as much, I don't know if we would have covered it as much. But there is a public interest, and you cannot deny that Michael Jackson is a huge figure. And as I said...


KURTZ: I'm not denying that at all.

LEMON: And I'm not -- listen, Howie, and I'm not a Michael Jackson apologist or sympathizer, what have you. I mean, I criticize him just as much as the next guy. And I believe that we should tell his whole story, which includes a controversy as well, as journalists.

But we do, at this point, have to remember that a person is dead. And as my mom says, don't speak ill of the dead. We have to remember that we are remembering this person's legacy and not just all of the bad things about him. But yes, there is a business interest in this, but we have to gauge that business interest as well with what the public is interested in.

KURTZ: I agree.

WAXMAN: Well, there's another thing also. We've spent a lot of years beating up on Michael Jackson, and I was -- I covered them both -- many aspects of beating up on him, business-wise, and the child molestation thing. And what I think we're realizing in all of this is, hey, he was actually a good -- a nice person. And I can't say how many people...

LEMON: A real person.

ZURAWIK: Howie, I can't wait for Tuesday.

WAXMAN: I think there is a sense in the media of feeling badly, of regret in the Michael Jackson -- honestly, there is a little bit of that haze of expiation in, gee, he was kind of fantastic.


KURTZ: I've got to stop. I've got to stop. LEMON: If you look at Michael Jackson's story, the family story -- I know you have to go, but yes, this is a story that should be celebrated in more ways as we look at the train wreck aspect of it.

KURTZ: I'm glad that a more balanced portrait of the good and the bad is emerging.

I've got 10 seconds, David Zurawik. How long is it going to go on at this level?

ZURAWIK: Howie, we -- at least through Tuesday. I mean, I'm serious. I can't wait for Tuesday. As a pop culture lover, this is fantastic.

KURTZ: That would be Tuesday of which month?


KURTZ: All right. David Zurawik, Don Lemon, Sharon Waxman, thanks for joining us.

LEMON: We're still covering Diana. Remember that.


KURTZ: And when we come back, the man behind TMZ, which has, let's face it, dominated this Jackson story.

Harvey Levin is next.


KURTZ: TMZ, the gossipy Hollywood Web site, has had its share of big scoops in the last couple of years, but suddenly, with the death of Michael Jackson, it seems to be winning some grudging new respect. The Web site, owned by CNN's parent company, Time Warner, not only beat most of its rivals with the news of Jackson's death, but has stayed ahead of the press pack on a number of key developments. And even the biggest news organizations are taking notice.


COOPER: The Web site TMZ reporting a will is to be filed tomorrow.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC: is reporting that sources have told it an extremely powerful and dangerous drug used for surgical anesthesia was found at Jackson's home after he died.

CROWLEY: Actually, TMZ is reporting today -- and they've been right on a lot of stuff here on this Michael Jackson case -- that, in fact, Debbie Rowe is not the biological mother and Michael Jackson is not the biological father of any of these kids.


KURTZ: And joining us now from Los Angeles is TMZ's founder and managing editor, Harvey Levin.

So, these days, you're being profiled by the "L.A. Times," "The Washington Post," interviewed by "Nightline."

Are you sure you want this much respect?

HARVEY LEVIN, MANAGING EDITOR, TMZ: Oh, Howie, you're the best.

KURTZ: Don't you like being a rebel?

LEVIN: You know, look, what I like being, honestly, is a journalist. And, you know, we -- the predicate of TMZ is we do everything.

We will do important stories, we'll do silly stories, and we'll do everything in between. And we want to give people a balance and an experience. But my passion is journalism. I did it for 20 years before I did TMZ. And I love, you know, getting into these stories. KURTZ: Let me jump in and ask you this -- the TV networks were still sufficiently wary of your operation that they didn't report it when TMZ said Michael Jackson was dead. They waited for the "L.A. Times" to confirm it.

Did that bother you, surprise you?

LEVIN: Well, no, it actually didn't bother me, but I think it's pretty ironic for two reasons.

Number one, the "L.A. Times" was wrong, Howie. I mean, that's what is funny.

What they ended up doing was they ended up quoting a news operation that got it wrong. They said he was in a coma when he was dead.

KURTZ: Right.

LEVIN: So people who followed the "L.A. Times" followed them down a rabbit hole, as we had already reported that he was dead. So that's number one.

And number two, you know, I think people are kind of, like, over- analyzing this a little bit, because as you know, for the last three and a half years, CNN alone has probably quoted TMZ thousands of times on numerous stories. So it's not like we've just surfaced, by any means.

KURTZ: Right. And by the way, a Web site called "The Enterprise Report" (ph) said it reported Jackson's death even before TMZ.

But look, journalists say they like the site, it's spicy, it's fun, but it's gossip. You can't necessarily trust it, they don't have our standards.

And to your point about having been around the block for a while, why didn't that attitude change after you broke the story about Michael Richards and his racist comedy rant or the story of Mel Gibson and the anti-Semitic drunken rant.

Why has it taken a while for the rest of the media to take you more seriously?

LEVIN: It hasn't. They're just embarrassed about this one, but if you look at what they've done, they've been quoting us all the time. So, you know, if they're saying this, why were they quoting us for the last three and a half years?

When we did the Mel Gibson story, Howie, you guys and everybody else in America quoted us, "cited TMZ." When we broke Heath Ledger's death, you guys quoted us and everybody else did, too. Britney's divorce, on and on and on.

KURTZ: In a way... LEVIN: So, let me just say -- so, really, what this is, is, you know, it's disingenuous and maybe even dishonest, because if you look at it, all the -- look, we embarrassed a lot of people who were way behind on this story. And I don't think they should be embarrassed.

I mean, it's enough to say, look, we had good sources, and everybody wanted to be careful. But I think for them to say it is ridiculous, because they've been quoting us for three and a half years.

KURTZ: Well, I don't think it's dishonest is they're attributing the stories to you. But in a way, does...

LEVIN: No, no, no.

KURTZ: Let me ask the question and you can answer.

LEVIN: OK. All right.

KURTZ: In a way, does TMZ make some of these stories safe for the mainstream media, kind of laundering through them through customs? For example, you published the photo of Rihanna, her badly bruised face, after she was beat up by her boyfriend, Chris Brown, and a lot of people -- I raised questions about it. But then everybody else showed the picture and jumped on the story. LEVIN: Well, I mean, a picture is a picture. But, you know, in terms of other stories we do, how do they know what our news standards are?

I can tell you right now, I was a newsman at CBS and NBC. Our standards are tougher than there.

We have the toughest news standards that you're going to find in America, including, by the way, CNN. I mean, everything we have is lawyered. Everything we have is researched. We have multiple sources. We have this city wired.

I mean, we have a lot of really good sources. But we have the same standard that you guys have.

So the idea that it's gossip and everything else, it's not. It's a fact-based news operation that operates on the same standards that you guys do. And the fact is, if that weren't the case, shame on you guys and everybody else for quoting us all the time.

KURTZ: Well, it's an interesting argument that you say you have higher standards.

But look, when you were at CBS or NBC...

LEVIN: Well, I will say, not with you guys. With you guys, look, you guys really vet things carefully, you guys are really careful. But so are we.

I'm telling you that I've been in the local news business for many, many years. And I've seen things fall through the cracks and have them throw things up where it isn't sourced properly around the newsroom. And it is not the case here. I mean, it is not.

KURTZ: Well, when you were at CBS or you were at NBC, you would have been fired for doing what you do now, which is paying for information, paying for tips. You have no problem with that, I know, because we've talked about it, but it makes a lot of journalists uncomfortable.

LEVIN: Well, no, I didn't -- what I said was, first of all, it's ridiculous. Are you telling me that Larry Birkhead wasn't paid when he went on "The Today Show" and "Access Hollywood"?

I can tell you, it was a million dollars, Howie. That's how much he got paid.

They're paying for interviews, which we would never do. The difference is this -- if you pay for an interview -- which, by the way, we won't -- then you're basically saying to somebody, make the story really good so that it's worth the price. That's when it's unreliable.

If you pay for a photo or video, which, by the way, everybody in this business does, when you have a stringer covering a...


KURTZ: But you also pay for tips. You pay for tips and information.

LEVIN: But we don't put the -- we will occasionally. We don't put the tip up on the screen.

If you get a tip, Howie, how is it less reliable, even if you paid somebody $100 for it, if you're the one that ends up then looking at it and saying is it true, chasing it down? You tell me. What's the problem in terms of the reliability if you do that?

KURTZ: Well, I appreciate the fact that you need to confirm these things. I am still uncomfortable with the idea of money changing hands.

Let me come back to the Jackson story.

Among the things TMZ has broken, we showed at the top Jackson not the biological father of any of his children. His mother -- there was no mother's name on the birth certificate for his youngest son.

How is it with all of these big news organizations now playing on your turf, now covering, some would say overcovering, the Jackson story, that you're still able to be ahead on some of these stories? Are you feeling the heat of the competition now?

LEVIN: Well, look, I mean, competition is intense in this business, absolutely. And I also don't see it as zero-sum game. I think that there are a lot of stories out there. We're certainly not going to break every one. And I think there have been some really good stories and good reporting in this case. So, you know, I don't beat myself if somebody else wins a story.

KURTZ: Right.

LEVIN: I will say that I think the advantage we have and one of the reasons we do break so many stories is this is our turf in the sense that we know a lot of these players because we've worked with them day in and day out for years now. And when you have sources and relationships in place, I think it's more effective when something big like this happens in terms of talking to them.

KURTZ: It's definitely your turf. And at the moment, you've got a lot of company on that turf in the rest of the media.

Harvey Levin, thanks very much for joining us.

LEVIN: Sure, Howie.

KURTZ: Still to come, the newspaper that broke the Watergate scandal finds itself caught in a scandal of its own.


KURTZ: There's no other way to put it. "The Washington Post," where I work, made a big, fat blunder this week. The company solicited corporations to pay big bucks from $25,000 to as much as $250,000 to underwrite off the record dinners at the home of post publisher Katharine Weymouth.

Just listen to the pitch on a marketing flyer. "Bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama administration and congressional leaders. Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No. The relaxed setting in the home of Katharine Weymouth assures it."

The first such salon was going to be on health care later this month, to be underwritten by $25,000 from Kaiser Permanente, which was close to signing a contract. Soon after "Politico" broke the story, Weymouth told me she hadn't approved the flyers and she junked the idea of the dinners. Marcus Brauchli, the "Post" editor, told me he was appalled and that the newsroom would not participate.

Well, it was a horrible idea, an unmitigated embarrassment for the newspaper, selling access to administration officials and congressmen? Other big media outfits, the "Wall Street Journal," the "Atlantic," the "New Yorker," to name a few, stage forums and festivals with top government officials and CEOs and accept many thousands of dollars from corporations to pay for them. But, here's the difference. Most of those affairs are on the road and open to media coverage. Having lobbyists and conglomerates underwrite small, off the record dinners doesn't smell right, and I'm glad the idea was quickly deep sixed.

That will do it for this edition of "Reliable Sources." Now back to John King for more "State of the Union."