Giving the Viewers What They Want

I am not writing a column in defense of Michael Jackson coverage because I enjoy it so much myself. 

I don’t. I’m not interested in Michael Jackson’s music, his surgical history or his preference in bedmates. I’d rather watch a documentary on new techniques in Lithuanian cross-stitching than see another TV news story with Jackson’s mug shot in it. 

I am writing a column in defense of Michael Jackson coverage because there is an important principle here, and among those least acquainted with it are those who ought to be defending it most heartily: TV critics and media analysts.

The reason that the all-news networks are covering Jackson a lot, the reason they should be covering him a lot, is that people -- the present author, and perhaps many of his readers, excluded -- want to see such coverage. When the charges against Jackson were revealed more than a week and a half ago, Fox News Channel’s daytime ratings jumped 25 percent, CNN’s 44 percent, and MSNBC’s 51 percent. 

The prime-time ratings for the same day were up, respectively, 11 percent, 27 percent and 53 percent.

So there you have it. Jackson is good for ratings and ratings are good for business and this is justification enough for the coverage. 

Of course, the critics and analysts, especially those in the academe, decry such thinking. “How can you possibly cover a story just on the basis of ratings?” they say. Which is a lot like asking of a restaurant chain, “How can you possibly sell food just on the basis of how good it tastes?”  Or like asking of a clothing store, “How can you possibly provide apparel just on the basis of how stylish it looks and how well it fits?”

Ratings are not merely a measure of the success, of lack of it, of a television network; they are as well a measure of the preferences of the audience -- and any business that ignores the latter is as irresponsible in its mission as it is counter-productive to its bottom line.

The critics do not see this. They savage the media for acceding to the lowest common denominators of popular taste, as in the case of the current Jackson fixation. But consider the alternative: If the all-news networks ignored Jackson, or covered him to a much lesser degree, concentrating instead of the reportage of more “serious” stories, they would open themselves to charges of arrogance, of allowing a tiny cabal of news executives to decide on the content of the day’s programming in total disregard of the wishes of the people.

In other words, the media are either panderers or elitists. They are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. They might as well take the damnation that brings the higher ratings.

And, perhaps the most important point: By basing coverage on ratings, at least to an extent, the media are behaving not like venal businessmen or cultural barbarians, but like true Americans.  Our country is a representative democracy politically; so should it be culturally. The majority should rule. Adherence to the ratings helps to ensure that it does.

Of course, the minority must be protected. It must not be overwhelmed, must not be oppressed.  It is not. As I write this column, CNN is doing a report on food poisoning and Fox News Channel on steroid use among professional athletes. There is no mention of Michael Jackson on the front page of The New York Times or on any of hundreds of other American newspapers, and among the news anchors and interviewers who, on this night, will discuss matters other than Jackson for most of their allotted time are Jim Lehrer, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews, Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. Just to name a few.

Politically, we express our preferences with a lever in a voting booth. Culturally, we express them with a remote control device on a sofa. The candidate who gets the most votes wins. Right now, in the latter case, it seems to be Michael Jackson. 

Those of you who don’t like it, click your remotes and vote for a recall.


Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).

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