Friday, June 26, 2009

The Death Beat

As word of Michael Jackson's passing hit the airwaves (and internet) on Thursday afternoon, we were reminded of a similar day, more than 30 years ago. We refer, of course, to the passing of Elvis Presley in Memphis on August 16, 1977.

In many respects, Elvis's demise set the media template for covering the death of pop icons, although some of the reporting was reserved--even dignified--by today's standards. After all, when Elvis died, CNN was still three years away from its launch; the world wide web was limited to a few universities and defense department offices and Jack Dorsey, the inventor of Twitter, was only nine months old.

Still, there are obvious similarities in the reporting of Elvis's death and that of Michael Jackson; the breathless coverage, the relentless speculation, and conveyed shock over the passing of a performer who transcended ordinary stardom. But, in contrast to the media firestorm that ignited with Jackson's arrival at a Los Angeles hospital, initial press accounts of Elvis's passing were almost accidental, more the product of timely tips to the Memphis media, rather than tenacious reporting.

As recounted in Janice and Neal Gregory's fascinating book "When Elvis Died," the first journalist to report Elvis's death was Dan Sears, a newscaster for WMPS-AM, a Top 40 outlet in Memphis. Like most stations of that era, WMPS maintained a news department largely to satisfy FCC requirements for community programming. But when Elvis was pronounced dead at a local hospital, someone decided to give WMPS a call:

"It was about two minutes before 3:00 p.m., when Sears finished the "five before the hour" newscast. As he waited for the recorded commercial to end so he could tack on the latest stock quotations and the weather forecast, a staff assistant handed him a note saying Elvis had died at Baptist Hospital.

"Ah, another rumor," he said to his messenger, a new employee at the station. "Where'd you get this?"

"From the hospital," she replied.

"You mean they made an announcement?"

"Yes, they called--

The commercial ended. Sears swiveled back to his microphone and introduced the bulletin. "This has just been handed to me."

He signed off the news segment, then, as the music came up, he walked over to the news tickers. He got an uneasy feeling. No Presley stories were moving on the wires."

Another outlet that took a chance on a tip was WHBQ-TV, then the ABC affiliate in Memphis. As the Gregorys recount in their book, a police dispatcher told the station that something was up at Graceland, the Presley estate. Kathy Wolff, WHBQ's assignment editor, sent a photographer to Baptist Hospital and began phoning police contacts. By 3:15 she had confirmation from two sources that Elvis had died.

But WHBQ's news director was on vacation, and neither Ms. Wolfe nor the station's executive producer had the authority to interrupt programming. It took them a few more minutes to convince the station program director to air the bulletin. Then, there was the question of who would deliver the news. None of WHBQ's anchors were available, so Wolfe dictated a bulletin to reporter Jack Chestnut, who stepped in front of camera and repeated it, verbatim.

The time was 3:32, roughly half an hour after Sears' initial report, and more than 15 minutes ahead of WHBQ's rival, WMC-TV. In the minutes that followed, the wire services began moving bulletins that alerted the rest of the world. Two of the three network evening newscasts led with Elvis's demise and the same networks (ABC and NBC) aired specials on his life and career later that night. In those days, it was as close as television got to non-stop coverage of a celebrity death.

Today, the TMZ reporter that broke the Jackson story will probably get his/her own cable show, and a fat book deal--at a minimum. Four decades ago, none of the Memphis reporters gained lasting fame--or riches--for scooping their colleagues on the death of Elvis Presley. These days, the passing of a pop icon is infinitely more profitable for the working press.

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