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Remembering Jackson, Lennon, and Elvis

July 6, 2009
By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Media coverage of the death of Michael Jackson has reached a fever pitch with his memorial service that is scheduled to take place this week in Los Angeles.

Fans from all over the world have registered for the chance to receive tickets to attend the event, though only 11,000 people will actually be allowed into the Staples Center.

All three networks will broadcast live coverage of the service with their prime-time attendant anchors present at the arena.

The cable news channels will feature wall-to-wall coverage of the event, too, and the memorial service will likely be the lead story on the evening news everywhere.

As we have all witnessed, numerous stories of significance involving foreign policy and domestic legislation have been shunted aside in favor of Jackson interviews, retrospectives, and specials. This is part and parcel of what our celebrity-loving country has come to expect.

Regrettably, the scenario has played out a number of times before. A music icon dies suddenly and unexpectedly, and under a mysterious set of circumstances. Along with Jackson, two other legendary stars come to mind, and their passing had the same dramatic effect on the public and the culture.

It was a chilly December day when John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono finished a routine recording session. They had no idea how deep a darkness would soon fall.

The world at the time was consumed with things other than a former Beatle’s solo career. A new leader, Ronald Reagan, had just been elected president of the United States, with a full slate of issues ahead of him that included a faltering economy and enemies abroad.

As John and Yoko returned to their Manhattan apartment at the Dakota, a disturbed fan, Mark David Chapman, sent four hollow point bullets racing Lennon’s way. Police took the legendary musician to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The media behaved quite differently the day the Lennon music died. The New Media was not yet in force. Cable news programming was still in formation. Much of the public heard the word of Lennon's death from Howard Cosell during a broadcast of “Monday Night Football.”

Still, news of the former Beatle’s passing spread fast. It was the lead story on all of the major networks and above the fold in newspapers around the world.

As the sad news traveled, crowds gathered outside the Dakota. Much like the throngs who mourned for Jackson in New York, London and L.A., Lennon fans sang songs and recited lyrics in his honor. Yoko Ono asked the mourners to return the next Sunday for a memorial for John. That Sunday, Central Park was overrun with over 100,000 people. A similar gathering took place in John's hometown of Liverpool with 30,000 people in attendance.

Many radio stations played Lennon music exclusively for several days in a row.

Although John’s death was similar to Michael’s in terms of public reaction, media coverage and cultural impact, another pop music icon passed on under much more eerily parallel circumstances.

His career was fading. His performances had fallen far below expectations with the resultant criticism from the entertainment press. He appeared unhealthy, but he and his handlers decided it was time for a summer comeback tour.

Just like in Jackson’s case, the tour never happened. In August of 1977, Elvis Presley was found dead on the floor of his Graceland home by his fiancee, Ginger Alden.

His death was the lead story on all of the broadcast networks except for CBS, which made it second to a Panama Canal story, possibly because Walter Cronkite was away on vacation.

For years insiders at the CBS newsroom were said to have repeated the words “remember Elvis,” because the network felt as if it had been remiss in its coverage of the star.

The day the Elvis music died dominated the media cycle for weeks on end. Much like the death of Jackson, the cause of Elvis’s death would remain a mystery and consume massive amounts of media airtime.

Early reporting indicated that Presley died from a cardiac arrhythmia, which fit with the excess weight he was carrying. But an autopsy of the legendary singer showed large quantities of a host of drugs including Morphine, Demerol, Valium, Codeine and Quaaludes, some of which were also found in Jackson's home.

The passing of Jackson, Lennon and Elvis invites the kind of speculation that, like their iconic images, goes on forever.

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Copyright © 2009
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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