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Jackson media frenzy faulted

Separating truth from rumor and figuring out who represents the singer aren't easy in an era of nonstop news.

July 04, 2009|Maria Elena Fernandez and Scott Collins

The past week has been filled with breathless rumors and revelations from supposed intimates of Michael Jackson. Hyper-competitive news outlets are lapping up supposedly inside information from a motley cast of supporting characters, including Deepak Chopra, Lou Ferrigno and Al Sharpton, as well as many lesser lights.

A top publicist hired by the dead singer's family has lashed back at the extensive and error-prone media coverage.

"People should be embarrassed when they print, blog or say things on the air that are proven to be entirely untrue or partially untrue," said Ken Sunshine, a veteran PR consultant retained Wednesday by the Jackson family. "And there should be a shame in it.

"You watch these interview shows all night and all day," he added, referring to the nearly nonstop coverage on cable news. "The people that they get to interview: Where are the standards of choosing somebody to go on-camera? . . . The so-called experts, who the hell are these people?"

In his professional life, Sunshine has of course very good reasons to advance such an argument. But many Jackson-fatigued viewers are likely asking similar questions. Sixty-three percent of Americans say the musician's death is getting too much media coverage, according to a survey released Thursday by HCD Research.

On the other hand, 80% in the same poll said they were engaged by Jackson stories when they saw them. So the past week has seen TV and websites awash with speculative and conflicting reports about whether the pop singer may have committed suicide or accidentally overdosed, whether he was the birth father of his three children, what sort of custody battle might ensue and even such basics as where his body is being held and the details of funeral arrangements.

"The frenzy is similar to O.J., but the media environment is completely different because there was no Internet, the cable universe was much smaller, and the press of attention was less as a result," said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who rose to national prominence 15 years ago as one of many pundits during the O.J. Simpson case, which ushered in the modern tabloid era.

"One of the challenges is to separate actual Jackson associates from the large cast of sleazy hangers-on who claim to know more than they do," he added. "The terms 'Jackson lawyer' and 'Jackson advisor' include actual advisors and people who know absolutely nothing."

For example, even before Jackson's death was announced on June 25, attorney Brian Oxman gave a CNN interview in which he said he had comforted stunned family members and charged that "people who have surrounded" the singer "have been enabling him." The network identified Oxman as a "longtime friend and spokesman" and many outlets have called him a "Jackson family lawyer."

However, Oxman's authority has since come under some dispute. He was one of the singer's attorneys during his 2005 molestation trial, but Joe Jackson, the clan's patriarch, said on Sunday that attorney L. Londell McMillan was the family's spokesperson; Sunshine was hired three days later. Oxman, who is still quoted by some outlets, told Los Angeles Times media columnist James Rainey that he is neither a family spokesman nor is he acting as a lawyer in matters relating to the Jackson death. He told Rainey, "I am a commentator and these are my comments."

The confusion over sourcing -- along with Jackson's legendarily bizarre background -- has created a hothouse for gossip and crackpot tips.

"The rumors are so rampant," Steve Tseckares, vice president at E! Studios, which runs the cable network's news programs, said Thursday. "Yesterday we heard at 6:30 that Michael Jackson had committed suicide. It seems outlandish but you have to ferret out everything in this story, because everything seems possible. What we determined was that it was just a rumor.

"But that's what is making this story different, I think -- many rumors. And with these stories being driven by the Internet now, those kinds of stories pop up and become real quickly, even if they may not be true."

Some survey the circus surrounding Jackson's death, though, and say it was ever thus. Or at least it's always been that way when the media collide with a major developing story with massive public interest.

Jack Shafer, press critic for the online magazine Slate, argues that news outlets always get facts wrong when chasing big, multifaceted breaking stories. "What's happening with the Jackson story seems to me to be deadline journalism par for the course," he said.

As Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism put it, "I can find you papers from the 1880s and 1890s that published just as much rumor and innuendo, but it was in the bulldog edition of a Hearst or Pulitzer newspaper."

But given the worldwide interest in Jackson's life and death, the singer's family may need media handlers such as Sunshine for a long time.

According to a spokesman for the Los Angeles Superior Court, an all-time record of 70 news organizations -- from the U.S., Britain, Australia, Japan, Germany, France, Brazil and Mexico -- have applied for admittance to a Monday hearing on the control of his estate.

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maria.elena.fernandez @latimes.com

scott.collins@latimes.com

Staff writer Harriet Ryan contributed to this report.

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