Michael Jackson Obit, the Backstory
About 7 p.m. Thursday evening, former Post managing editor Bob Kaiser wandered past the obits desk and asked, ever so innocently, "Any noteworthy deaths today?"
Kaiser, who has been at the Post since 1963, knows the gallows humor of newsrooms better than anyone, and of course he knew we were in full emergency mode. The first rumors that Michael Jackson had died surfaced around 5:30 -- a good half-hour or more after our usual daily deadline.
Michael Jackson was 50 years old, with no known life-threatening health problems, and we had no advance obituary prepared. Adam Bernstein and I began an immediate crash course in all things Michael, as the editors scrambled to figure out how to handle the huge, unexpected story.
Adam wrote the "top" -- newspaper speak for the lead and roughly the first half of the story -- and I circled back to the beginning, to fill in Michael's story from his birth in Gary, Ind., on Aug. 29, 1958. (I always like to use birth dates in obituaries, but someone deleted it from the final story.)
Earlier in the day, we had learned of the death of actress Farrah Fawcett, and that was expected to be the big obituary news of the day. Alexander Remington, who works for the Post's editorial page, had written an advancer a couple of months ago when it was clear Fawcett wasn't going to recover from her cancer.
I was spending the day working on a Local Life feature for this coming Sunday (which I still haven't finished, I must confess) and other local obituaries about a musician in the Marine Band and a Fairfax County judge.
Then, late in the day, the news about Michael Jackson hit. At first, there was only an unconfirmed online report that he had been taken to a hospital and had died. Reliable verification took about an hour or more to come by. I remember looking at the clock at 6:15, about when I'd normally go home, not knowing whether Jackson was dead or not as I frantically dug through records and clippings about his early life. The Los Angeles Times was the first to offer substantiation that Michael Jackson had been declared dead at an L.A. hospital.
I placed calls and sent e-mails to a few authorities on pop music, and in time their responses began to trickle in. I talked to Alan Light, the former editor of Spin and Vibe magazines, while he was in the green room at CNN, waiting to go on the air. I spoke to J. Randy Taraborrelli, who has written three biographies of Michael Jackson and first met Michael when he was 10 years and singing with his brothers in the Jackson 5.
Taraborrelli talked of sitting behind Michael at the 2005 molestation trial that constituted his ultimate humiliation and downfall and "watching him slowly deteriorate before my eyes. It was like watching a ghost."
Editor R.B. Brenner, who had a small role in the recent newspaper movie "State of Play," edited the quick-and-dirty online story that Adam and I patched together and put up on the Web between 6:30 and 7. By then, other editors had assigned master Style scribe Hank Stuever to write the "leadall" -- the main story giving the general overview and the facts of Michael's life and death -- and two other Style reporters were enlisted to write about the reaction and Jackson's cultural importance.
Meanwhile, Adam and I tried to fill in the early and middle portions of Jackson's career -- from roughly birth to the 1991 album, "Dangerous." I was shipping copy to Hank by e-mail, sometimes one paragraph at a time. At one point, Hank's editor, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Henry Allen, who has been at the Post for 40 years, came up and stood over my desk, calmly but extremely firmly stating, "We need that copy NOW!"
By about 8 p.m., we fiinished, and I sent the last of my copy and notes to Hank. It had to have been the most intense two hours I've had during the five years I've been on the Obits desk.
Hank wrapped his early version of the story by our first-edition deadline of 9:30 p.m., then rewrote his piece for the later editions. The story carries both our bylines, but except for a few paragraphs in the middle, it's really all Hank's. I think he did a terrific job and, in a way, has subtly advanced the art of the obituary by including doubts and suppositions about Michael Jackson that are on everyone's mind:
"Other misfortunes he seemed to bring on himself -- and theories about his behavior were never in short supply. People loved to think they had cracked the mystery of Michael: He wanted his face to resemble Liz Taylor's. He hated his appearance because his father and brothers used to tease him. He was repressed, he was asexual, he was an addict, he was a pervert, he was from outer space, he was a genius, he was stupid, he was insane. The truth was never known and Jackson recoiled from media scrutiny, and largely thwarted the assistance of image experts, who displeased him."
And: "Promoters of the concerts had recently said that the singer had passed a physical examination to assuage any doubts he was ready for a comeback.
"But what sort of comeback? It seemed increasingly futile. Michael Jackson's many observers (a media cottage industry all its own) generally regard a 2003 television interview he gave as the beginning of his end. In that interview, with British journalist Martin Bashir, Mr. Jackson appeared holding hands with a young boy who had cancer. Something seemed weird. Something always seemed weird."
The TV networks broke into regular programming, and snippets of Michael Jackson's videos are all the place, but even in the diminished state that newspapers are in, sometimes it takes ink on paper to make sense of the inexplicable in our world.
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