At 11.30pm GMT, Twitter went down under the sheer weight of tweets about the – at the moment still unconfirmed – death of Michael Jackson. Iran’s revolt didn’t do it, even Bruce Forsyth’s £100 bottle of champagne didn’t do it – much as the Guardian newsroom will find that hard to believe. Truly a sign of the times. Does anyone remember the days when there was a difference between a rumour and a news story?
I wrote the first paragraph of this post last night and, not long after, Jackson’s death was confirmed. But the net was already awash, Twitter had broken, and reports were everywhere. All of an “unconfirmed death”, not of a confirmed fact. Which was the original point I was making. The traditional urge to be first with the news has morphed in the age of instant media into the necessity to be first with the stuff. Any stuff. Many people took the rumour at face value straight away, so the story was that Jackson was dead before he even died. Hell, he died in the end, so let’s not quibble about time.
The demand for stories is so great, the need for confirmation is being downgraded. Ironically enough, earlier in the evening I had been watching series five of The Wire and had reached the episode where a similar issue comes to a head in the Baltimore Sun newsroom. [Please don’t screw the end up for me by the way, I’ve got two episodes to go].
The fact, and that was confirmed, that Jackson had been admitted to hospital was a big enough story and, in the past, would’ve been run straight. But with so much noise out there, more was needed. So instead of running with the available facts, speculation about the consequence of those facts was made the story. Death sells more than illness.
This morning, things are following a depressingly predictable course. I woke up to hear Radio London interviewing a Jackson impersonator from Essex, who’d never met Jackson. After that they rolled out Uri Geller, who used the word ‘I’ rather alot. The mass mourning will dominate the days ahead, and lots of nonsense will be spouted. Jackson was not, as Richard Williams in The Guardian would have us believe, “the greatest entertainer of his age”. The last truly great album he made was in 1979, and since then he has been known more for his celebrity than his music. And much of what is being said is simply incorrect. On his Twitter feed David Hepworth, one of the most knowledgeable and perceptive of music writers, is picking up on the errors and puncturing the hyperbole. Check the feed and remember when ‘facts were sacred’.
Finally, a word on the headline. It’s partly a cynical experiment in search – I’ll report on whether it boosted visits to this blog when the day is finished. And it’s also influenced by a conversation I had with and old mate, and which I may have mentioned before. He said he could see the time coming when the fact that hundreds of people died in an earthquake would be secondary to the fact that the quake was reported on Twitter. Recent events in Tehran and LA have made me think about that a lot.