Michael Jackson and Baseball Writing Analogies

I haven’t said much about Michael Jackson coverage (to which I, like all journalists, contributed in a small way), partly because there wasn’t much to say; this was a big story, a popular story, the inevitable number-one story for anyone. I will say that I’ve been reminded of something that Bill James wrote over 20 years ago in one of his Baseball Abstract books, responding to people who complain that baseball players (who, like Michael Jackson, are entertainers) make more money than cancer researchers or other “useful” people.

James wrote that the amount of attention paid to something, and the amount their services are worth, is a reflection of “what our values really are” — not what our values should be, not what we would like them to be, but what they are. He noted that he gave much more money every year to professional baseball and spent more time thinking about professional baseball than about cancer research, even though both his parents died of cancer “and I fully expect it’s going to get me too, in time.” And many people who say that cancer research is more important than baseball spend lots of money on tickets for baseball games — more money than they give to cancer research.

Replace baseball with some other form of entertainment and cancer research with virtually anything that has redeeming social value, and we have a fairly accurate description of how many if not most of us spend our money and time. Iran, Iraq, etc. are more important, in theory, than Michael Jackson, but in measurable terms (amount of money spent on his records, time spent thinking about his work), Jackson was more important to more people. So I wasn’t offended by the all-day coverage of the memorial. It mattered; one may wish it didn’t matter, but it really, really did.

That’s not to say that coverage should focus only on the things that are the most popular. But it’s an explanation not only of why Jackson was such a huge story, but why other kinds of stories become so big. There were many stories in the ’90s that had more important global ramifications than Bill Clinton’s affair. But what are we, in our daily lives, more interested in — geopolitics or sex?

For another view, see Howard Bernstein’s post “Making St. Michael,” where he has a lot to say about how celebrity coverage has changed and the development of the practice of instant canonization.