Media Coverage of the Michael Jackson Trial

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Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, talks with Farai Chideya about the Jackson verdict and how the media covered and continues to cover it.


Celebrity trials get thousands of hours of media air time and then fade away. But before Michael Jackson's trial becomes memory, we'll take a look at the role of the media in the trial and how it shaped public perception. Joining me from our DC headquarters is Matthew Felling. He's media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

Welcome, Matthew.

Mr. MATTHEW FELLING (Center for Media and Public Affairs): Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So let me ask you, how did the media treat Michael Jackson before he was indicted? How did that differ from what happened during the trial? And what do you think will happen now?

Mr. FELLING: When we're looking at the media, most of the time we like to use that as shorthand for TV news. And the cable news networks, I found, accidentally covered this case rather responsibly. The cable news networks have this 24-hour hole that just requires fresh video every day, and because we didn't have cameras in the courtroom in this case, we weren't given a bird's-eye view of the day-to-day developments of this story, and so the media was forced to cover the Terri Schiavos and the pope death watches of the world.

Michael Jackson was treated in--overall in the media with a little bit of a circumspect attitude. We don't know exactly what is going on with this man. He might have some freakish tendencies, but once the trial was moving along, I think the media kind of laid off, reported the facts and reported the allegations responsibly, and then left it for the viewers to decide.

CHIDEYA: So let's talk a little bit about how celebrity coverage ties in with other types of news coverage or media coverage. The institute that you're at does a lot of studies of political journalism. Are there any similarities between celebrity journalism and political journalism?

Mr. FELLING: Oh, absolutely, because what is DC if not Hollywood for ugly people? Everybody is sort of a celebrity when they're thrust in front of the camera. And there are similar attitudes. The media will go overboard whenever they possibly can, whether it's Gary Condit or Michael Jackson in a trial. And what we've seen over the years is the news networks just developing this small niche which caters to the justice junkies of the world. It seems like every year we have a new trial that just we're infatuated by, whether it's Peterson or O.J. or Michael Jackson. It's a niche unto itself.

CHIDEYA: Some people had theorized that people love trials because there's an ending. There's a beginning, a middle and an end, and life is a little bit messier than that usually. What do you think?

Mr. FELLING: That is the number-one reason why we like these courtroom dramas. It reminds us of the Perry Masons of the world where there was closure, because so much--I mean, every day we are pelted with images and headlines on the front pages of things that just are going on without end. And while these trials might last a lot longer than we'd like, there always is that sense of closure. It's the same reason that we are--that the popularization of all the crime dramas has been on the rise in recent years, because we want to have the bad guys go away, and oftentimes in the real world that's not the case.

CHIDEYA: All right. Matthew Felling is media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. He joined us from NPR's headquarters in Washington.

Thank you so much.

Mr. FELLING: Thank you.

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