An intervention couldn't save Michael Jackson, but maybe it's not too late for Larry King.
The King of Talk can't stop blathering about the King of Pop. It's been building for three weeks now, getting more and more absurd.
Night after night, the CNN host tosses out sentence-fragment questions ("Brain not returned to the family . . . right, Carlos?") that seem like they should have been written for Jimmy Kimmel.
Night after night, the "experts" lob back speculation, piled on theory, heaped on postulation.
Twenty-two days after Jackson's death, new facts about the cause remain fleeting. As the gravel-voiced, ever-game host acknowledged in one of his occasional moments of clarity this week: "We don't know any facts yet. . . . All of these are assumptions."
That was just before King's panel of judges and lawyers launched into yet another round of speculation, King urging: "What do we know? What do we know?"
To be fair, the suspendered-one is only the most visible suspect when it comes to what Comedy Central's Jon Stewart dubs "obitutainment."
Geraldo Rivera used a whiteboard to scrawl out his theories on the cause of death. One cable correspondent offered an update on his "reporting," that consisted of reading from the latest missive on celebrity website TMZ.
A Scandinavian reporter called our paper looking for "an expert on Debbie Rowe's womb." (Rowe is one of Jackson's ex-wives and mother of his two eldest children.)
Dear old Larry King's relentless Jackson coverage merits special consideration, in my mind, because of his sizable audience and his failure to heed his own better instincts.
As I watched each night this week, King seemed to experience spasms of doubt, only (not unlike the alleged addict he's covering) to plunge headlong into the next bout of overindulgence.
Tuesday night may have been the most hilariously appalling.
The program began with King regurgitating a New York Post report that claimed Rowe had sold, for $4 million, any claim to the two oldest Jackson children.
King immediately wondered if the screaming headline "Cash Cow -- Rowe Sells Jackson Kids" was just another example of the tabloid "running wild here." His guests concluded that the report could not be verified. And Rowe's attorney had offered an unequivocal denial, saying Rowe "has not accepted and will not accept any additional financial consideration" beyond her current spousal support.
Those slight flaws in the story hardly proved an obstacle, though, for Larry and his panel, which spent the next hour assessing all manner of sordid motivations that might be driving the unfortunate Ms. Rowe.
Carlos Diaz of TV's "Extra" may have been the most inflammatory and uninformed, speculating that Rowe's lawyer might simply be engaged in "great posturing."
Surely, Diaz asserted, the onetime Jacko-mate would not "settle for something that's not as much money as she can get."
Onetime Jackson lawyer Mark Geragos and a family law attorney, Neal Hersh, went to some lengths to de-slime Rowe, reminding King and viewers that no one had produced a shred of information to corroborate the child-selling rap.
Poor Larry seemed nearly flummoxed into retreat a few minutes later, as multiple legal experts continued to rebuff his musings about an impending child custody war. (Grandmother Katherine Jackson almost certainly would end up with Michael's three children, the panelists said.)
Yet King insisted on offering another "hypothetical," this time conceding: "We don't know what we're talking about. No one knows what we're talking about."
To which King-regular Geragos sardonically responded: "That hasn't stopped us on any night in the last three weeks."
Even King will occasionally pause to question the entire spectacle. ("Where is it all going to go,?" he asked frequent CNN sidekick Jim Moret the other night. "Where does this go?")
That seems odd only in that King can't, or won't, recognize that he's one of those who's steering the runaway caravan forward.
CNN burst to the top of the cable ratings June 25, the day Jackson died. King and his station doubtless would like to maintain a grip on the story and the viewership it could drive, though the numbers have settled back near their typical level.
For two of the first three days this week, the Jackson-centric programming brought King, at best, a fractionally larger audience than the 1.2 million he has averaged this season, Nielsen ratings show.
Maybe King keeps the Jackson story going because he really believes, as he said recently, that it's "fascinating stuff." There's always another expert willing to guess about Jackson's tortured psyche, or another provocative video to air.
On Wednesday, CNN and the rest of the media rushed into rapid rotation new video (from US Weekly) of the 1984 incident in which Jackson's hair went ablaze as he filmed a Pepsi commercial.
King showed the hair-afire clip three times in the first 20 minutes of his program and returned to it later.
Marcia Clark, straight-haired but still ramrod proper years after she rose to fame as O.J. Simpson's prosecutor, pronounced the video "horrifying." CNN's Moret played along too, calling it "chilling." Geragos again steered a bit off message.
"I just don't understand why we keep playing it," he said. "I guess it's good for ratings."
King, unrelenting, insisted: "It's rather gripping, isn't it?"
"It is," said the lawyer. "But so are car accidents and beheadings."