Michael Jackson, comment sections and the Death of Manners

Have news editors lost their minds in the search for every prurient detail of Michael Jackson’s life? Have they sacrificed the final shreds of their tattered dignity? Tossed off the last remnants of their credibility?

Heck no!

 The Jackson story is transcendent media, the stuff of Greek tragedy. Pop culture at its most compelling. Any news outlet that can’t shovel out truckloads of innuendo and speculation should have its license revoked.

It’s not important like the Iranian election, or the Honduran coup, or the Obama Administration’s health care plan. But so what?
 People can’t get enough. It’s the best famous death since Howard Hughes turned up dead decades after he’d turned up missing. Some stories speak the language of our inner selves.

 In this case, the story arc is breathtaking: a gifted child robbed of his youth; an object of desire molded into a mannequin, an idol turned pariah, seemingly washed clean by death itself. Like it or hate it, it will not be ignored.

 It’s like that other media train wreck that must be acknowledged: The horrifying but compelling reader comments at the end of a story. News outlets can’t control this phenomenon. They can censor the most profane, but after that they must watch passively as it gushes forth and gradually becomes more popular than the news itself.

 This stuff is cruel and vulgar, and often barely literate. It is relentless and bottomless in its insensitivity. Who else but a comment-section denizen would be so tone-deaf as to crack wise about Jackson’s daughter’s nose, in comparison to her father’s, just minutes after she’d tearfully said goodbye to her dad?

Anyone involved in politics who says they don’t read the comments is either lying or crazy. How can you not read this stuff? Yes, it is often the ranting of the nut-job fringe, but it’s hard to look away.

 Reader comments, for all their vile ignorance and vindictiveness, are the “literature verite” of our time. It is at once disillusioning and mesmerizing.

On some national news sites, like, the reader comments are sometimes linked right below the headline, so you can skip the story entirely and get right to the scrum.

I asked several journalists whose paper they thought had the meanest reader comments. More than one thought the honor fell to their paper. One called it “sad.” Another said his paper’s readers “are probably the most racist.”

What he meant was the tendency of comment sections to blame virtually every ill on “illegals” and “anchor babies.”

In a story about pirated DVDs, someone named Rudyd wasted no time: “Keep letting all of the immigrants in,” he wrote, assuming we’d know just what he meant.

At the end of a story about people with disabilities blocking the doors to the governor’s office, someone who calls himself IhateTaxes wrote:
“Yep, the union roll in the cripples while the frauds of IHSS are hiding in the back ground collecting money for dead family members.”

To which BerkNeoLib responded:
“You people are a bunch of heartless idiots.”

Which prompted SoCoDave to write:
“Calling you a liberal imbecile would be a discredit to other liberal imbeciles.”

You don’t find a lot of middle ground in the comment sections. But that’s for the best – middle ground is boring. There’s no conflict in middle ground. No drama.

“So sad,” someone named Spike wrote about the Jackson memorial. “The freak show continues.

“His kids have been shielded for years, blankets, veils, feather masks, their first time center stage, is in front of billions, at the funeral of the only person they have ever known, to be their father. Time to update the definition of American family values.

“Can’t help but to question the selfishness of the man in the casket, if he so loved his children, why all the drugs found in the home and the live in fulltime doctor, the drugs, prescriptions to pseudo names?”

That earned this:
“Does it give you pleasure to trash the life of a man who gave so much to the world through his music and charity? Yes, he acted in a way many people would consider strange but the only thing that it showed was a childish innocence and refusal to grow up.  He was subject to an abusive father and lived in constant and unending public scrutiny. I hope when you are judged by the Creator you get the same benefit of the doubt.”

Go ahead. Pretend you hate it.

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