Anderson Cooper’s Shark Moment

“Jump the shark” – The moment when a TV show, actor or public figure has gone downhill.  Refers to an episode from Happy Days where Fonzi jumped a shark on water skis; labeled the lowest point of the series. – Urban Dictionary

Genius can be staggering.  Sadly, in the case of Michael Jackson, it can also be tragically fragile.

Jackson died from, as yet, unknown causes June 25, 2009.  The celebrity-focused tabloid show TMZ was the first to report the news.  Not unusual.

What is unusual is for NBC’s Today Show and CNN to spend the better part of its initial airtime covering a variety of sordid details regarding the death of the entertainer for one solid week.

Judging from the vast resources poured into a week-long series of broadcasts by both networks, if you were visiting from another planet, you might believe that Jesus Christ had died.  This, in no way, is a knock against Mr. Jackson’s considerable genius or the incredible impact his talent had on music.  In a day and age when pop singers are routinely hyped to the moon, Michael Jackson truly earned the title of superstar.

In spite of recent reports, it would be unfair for me to speculate on the cause of death of a man who, judging from rehearsal footage taken days before his death, seemed to be in remarkable physical shape.  I’m not a doctor.

However, that hasn’t stopped some mainstream journalists from reporting speculation, rumor and innuendo with abandon:  his last hours, his possible drug abuse, his last will, his assets, his debts, his mother, father, ex-wife, and the possible custody battle over his kids.  The Today Show’s Matt Lauer spent a full day reporting from Jackson’s Neverland Ranch and in an interview with one of Jackson’s brothers, pressed about the singer’s possible drug use.

Fair to ask?

Clearly, Jackson’s many millions of fans around the world want to know how and why he died in much the same way fans wanted details about the untimely death of super-celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and James Dean.

But when does it become too much?

Known for its morning news and interviews, the Today Show seemed like an extended version of the tabloid-focused TMZ due to a deliberate focus on speculation and controversy surrounding Jackson’s life and death.

But, the Today Show coverage pales in comparison to CNN’s reporting.  Judging from the coverage that I saw (although I watched a lot, I did not see everything), it seemed as if most of the A-list CNN reporters were either on the scene or reporting background except for Wolf Blitzer (mercifully on vacation) and Christiane Amanpour (in Iran?), leaving Jack Cafferty to hold down the fort in the Situation Room.

At the height of all this, Anderson Cooper – known for a regular segment called Keeping them Honest – “jumped the shark” when he and his staff arranged an interview with a former nurse to Michael Jackson.  The interview centered on her statements regarding Jackson’s use of a powerful coma-inducing drug.  When asked if he she had spoken with police, she said, “no.” (At that moment, bells went off for me. How do we know this person is who she says she is?)

At one point, Cooper tells his audience (not an exact quote) “we have not been able to verify this information.”  (major bells, now), This from the news source that bills itself as “The Most Trusted Name in News.”

So they haven’t verified the information and the woman in question has not been interviewed by police.

“Do you think such coverage is appropriate?” Cooper asks Jackson family friend Al Sharpton.

“I don’t hear reporters talk about how Michael Jackson raised millions of dollars for charity, or helping young kids,” Sharpton said.  “Why don’t we talk about the whole Michael?  Is that really fair to the legacy of a person who did so much for so many?”

Sharpton’s right!

In the first days after his death, the rumor mill was rife with speculation and innuendo.  For his part, Cooper tells his audience that the information has not been verified (although it has since come to light that the nurse did in fact treat Jackson).

Disclosure should not take the place of basic reporting.

What would Ben Bradley say to Woodward and Bernstein if they gave that reasoning to the Washington Post editor when wanting to use information from a singleunverified source concerning Watergate?

In fact, Woodward gives an interesting interview on YouTube in which he talks about the three key elements to any reliable reporting.

“One of the questions that persists in journalism,” Woodward says, “is, where do we get our information?  There are three tracks… The first, obviously, is people, but that doesn’t mean just going to one person or one source, it means checking everything, talking to half a dozen or even a dozen people for a day’s story.  If it’s something longer, you want to totally surround and saturate the subject.”

In an effort to be the first to carry the interview with the nurse, Anderson Cooper and his producers forgot the most basic rule of trustworthy reporting.  And when it comes to reliable reporting, the only thing that should matter are the facts, not speculation, rumor, innuendo or unverfied information.

Sensation seems to take the place of substance with more regularity these days.  With TMZ, and the National Inquirer, you expect this.  With “The Most Trust Name in News,” you don’t.

Cooper and CNN should conduct their own Keeping them Honest analysis to see how they can do a much better job next time.

However, at some point all news organizations will need to make a choice between being first and being trustworthy.

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