The recent deaths of several public figures yield a fascinating opportunity to examine human nature, public tastes and media priorities.
Some things change, and some don’t. What does change over the years is the way we absorb the news of such deaths.
I used to grab the newspaper from the driveway and bring it to the breakfast table when I was a kid. I remember the giant headlines, weeks apart, of the deaths of Harry Truman and LBJ as I started high school.
Today, the passing of every famous person sparks bulletins that flash across 24-hour TV networks and the Internet. Then comes the ritual consumption of every morsel of the follow-up coverage.
But while the technology that informs us of such stories is ever-changing, human nature is not. We adjust our reaction to famous deaths through the filter of what we think of the deceased and the level of our own personal loss.
I was 5 years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, too young to have any real reaction. The Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. deaths are far more vivid, but I was 11, old enough to grasp the dark history but not in any thoughtful, adult way.
Elvis died when I was 19. I knew it was a very big deal, but his explosion onto the world scene was before I was born, and short of hearing “Suspicious Minds” on the radio during my adolescence, he was never a big part of my teenage musical diet.
The first famous death that shook me to my core was Dec. 8, 1980. When John Lennon took a bullet, I had just turned 23. Through seven years of the Beatles and 10 years of a solo career, his work had been a continuous part of my life soundtrack since first grade.
A year into my first radio job in West Virginia, I wrote and produced a special that ran the following night. It was my first taste of public disapproval. Diehard Lennon fans did not like my inclusion of the controversial aspects of his life. His detractors wondered why we devoted any time to him at all.
This same phenomenon encircled me last week, as I tried to give proper attention to the certainty of Michael Jackson’s genius, as well as the depth, and possibly the criminality, of his perversities.
I couldn’t win. Fans wanted to forget the molestation charges; critics couldn’t get past them.
Most curious was the resentment I heard from many corners that the Jackson death overwhelmed the attention paid to the passing of Farrah Fawcett, the Charlie’s-Angel-turned- poster-goddess-turned-serious- actress.
While these people had to realize that his pop culture impact far outweighed hers, it boiled down to one thing: They liked her and hated him.
By comparison, the death of Ed McMahon two days earlier was such a simple, serene story. Almost universally loved and blessed with a long, full life, he left to the soothing sound of heartfelt tributes.
The running observation last week was that Farrah had somehow been cheated out of her share of attention because of the overwhelming impact of the Michael Jackson death hours later.
But if there are debates about such things in the afterlife, I would want to listen in to the views of two titanic figures who died the same day more than 40 years ago.
You may not know that one of literature’s foremost Christian writers and one of its foremost secular intellectuals died on the same day. But the ironic simultaneous passings of C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley of Brave New World fame received scant attention.
The world was quite consumed with an event that day that left no attention to spare: the JFK assassination.
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