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UNION PERSPECTIVE: Elvis and the birth of celebrity journalism

JACKSON, Tenn.Aug. 28, 2012 – A few months ago, a broadcast friend and a print colleague joined me on a forum to ponder various issues in media.

The young moderator, Jacob Melder -- who was born the year Bill Clinton was elected to the White House---posed the question, “When did we actually become obsessed with celebrity journalism?”

The three of us on the panel were over 55. The standard answers were bounced around, including the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and the death of Marilyn Monroe in August 1962.

I said, “When you talk about the last 50 years, it’s a no-brainer. The biggest sea change in the broadcast media’s focus on celebrities started the day Elvis Presley died.”

My fellow panelists immediately jumped on board, an occurrence that happens about as often as a frost warning in August in Waycross, Ga.

I based my answer on how the major national networks handled Elvis’ death. ABC News, which at the time was a virtual non-factor in journalism, had just appointed sports guru Roone Arledge as its president. Arledge understood the impact of pop culture. That night, 35 years ago this month, ABC News led with three stories on Elvis -- focusing on his death, the impact of his career and reaction from fans and performers in Memphis and across America.

That ABC devoted seven minutes to Elvis at the top of its newscast caused veteran media analysts to whirl in their seats. NBC News led with the story but only a single report of conventional two-minute length.

CBS News, ever the traditional voice in network journalism, opened with a story on President Carter’s negotiations over the Panama Canal treaty. Elvis was buried in a short voiceover report in the second news segment.

Ironically, substitute anchor Roger Mudd and another CBS News producer argued for Elvis to be the lead. Mudd had reported throughout the South on the civil rights movement and understood the Elvis phenomenon. Executive producer Ernie Leiser, who had the final say, was unmoved. Ten years later, in a TV Guide retrospective on “The Day Elvis Died,” Leiser defended his decision as being “the more significant story that affected world affairs.”

That evening, for the first time in its history, ABC News soared to the top of the ratings in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- which offered instant overnight ratings. CBS News fell to third.

For that week in August 1977, ABC News owned the Elvis story. Despite criticism from purists in New York and Washington for its volume of attention to Elvis, ABC mattered in network news for the first time.

The argument can be made that Elvis’ death was the birth of a phenomenon known as water cooler journalism. Even people who could not stand Presley talked about him around company water coolers and office desks for days.

News consultant Frank Magid was quoted in Les Brown’s book, “Television: The Business Behind the Box,” as saying, “Ratings go up when viewers are told what they want to hear, rather than what they need to know.”

That perspective launched a debate that has continued for four decades between old warhorses like me who see traditional standards eroding and pop culture enthusiasts whose frame of reference for journalism is “Entertainment Tonight,” “E!” and “TMZ.”

The day Elvis died, I was only three months into my sophomore year as a TV journalist. I had just joined WTVM in Columbus, Ga., after 15 months at crosstown rival WRBL. WTVM’s “Action 9 News” was considered contemporary. WRBL appealed more to seniors.

My new station devoted five minutes to Elvis’ death because, as native Southerners, we knew what would dominate the talk around town. My former boss, WRBL news director Dick McMichael, took an old school approach when his producer/assignment editor David Eisen argued for stronger Elvis coverage.

“Convince me,” McMichael demanded. McMichael was 48. Eisen was 25. The perspectives in that newsroom were clearly divided along generational lines. Ever the traditionalist, McMichael offered a begrudging compromise. He allowed two minutes on Elvis -- but not in the opening news block.

Jackson native and veteran game show host Wink Martindale was more than a small catalyst for the Elvis phenomenon. Presley was an unknown when Martindale, on his Sunday night radio show in Memphis in the 50s, played one of Elvis’ first Sun Records recordings.

“It was unbelievable,” Wink said on a 90-minute live show I did with him five years ago. “The phones began ringing off the hook. I wanted to find him. Later that night, we reached his father Vernon. He told us Elvis was at the movies with friends.”

Wink’s detective work paid off. Elvis was paged at the theater and understood the significance of local radio. He went to Martindale’s studio for what became a two-hour live conversation. Wink was not a newsman, but at 20, he began to understand the power of a celebrity interview. So did Elvis. The careers of the two exploded in their respective paths. They remained close friends until Elvis’ death.

I asked Wink his perspective on television news coverage of Elvis’ death. “It probably was the start of celebrity journalism as we now know it,” Martindale said. “But those who would have argued whether his death was a major news story just didn’t understand what he meant in so many people’s lives.”

The modern-day internet era has only exploded celebrity journalism. However, the focus group-driven sites and broadcast programs are ambiguous in their coverage. If the star is not current or hot, he or she is glossed over as quickly as a bad shine job on a car, regardless of past contributions in entertainment or news.

When Bob Hope died at the age of 100, NBC -- the network with which he was synonymous for 60 years -- gave him barely a mention. Andy Griffith, who made millions for CBS with his legendary series in the 1960s, was relegated to weekend marathon tributes on subsidiary TV Land at the time of his death this summer. CBS could not sacrifice one hour of its precious “Big Brother” to offer a retrospective on one of the network’s most enduring stars.

The death of Elvis indeed was the launching pad of contemporary celebrity journalism. That nudged us toward news that moves the needle and follows emotional impulses.

In his 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman suggested: “When a population becomes distracted by trivia … when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”

Postman’s dire warnings may well be a current reality. Celebrity journalism is continuing on a superhighway that was first built the day Elvis died.

By Steve Beverly
Associate professor of broadcast journalism

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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