Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Passing Icons

Two American icons died recently. How similar their fame; how different their lives. These summer months saw the deaths of Michael Jackson and Walter Cronkite. One died “unexpectedly” at the young age of 50 while the other died at the age of 92 after a lengthy illness.

Both captivated and defined their corners of American culture. One in music, the other in news. Both achieved notoriety. One was famous, the other, infamous. I’m struck by their professional parallels and wildly disparate personal lives.

Cronkite was the first TV newsman to be honored with the title of “anchor.” Jackson, on the other hand, deemed himself “king of pop.” Cronkite reported the moon landing; Jackson “moon walked.” The most memorable image of Cronkite could be that of him removing his glasses and announcing the death of JFK. No doubt the most memorable image of Jackson is the Thriller video. While Cronkite was referred to as “the most trusted man in America,” Jackson battled charges of child molestation. While one led an exemplary life, the other… well, did not. Blame early stardom, blame a stolen childhood, blame false accusations, blame whatever you’d like. In the end, the result’s the same.

I don’t know about you, but in retrospect, I found the coverage of their respective deaths and funerals a bit disquieting. I can’t help but wonder what it says about American society in general that the coverage of Jackson’s death and funeral went on endlessly for weeks, while Cronkite garnered, by comparison, a passing mention. My hometown paper had stories of Jackson’s death on the front page every day until his memorial… and then that took over. Meanwhile, the story of Cronkite’s funeral was covered in two paragraphs in the “national re-cap section” on page A-4.

The circus that surrounded one memorial service continued to move from the sublime to the ridiculous on a daily basis. In fact, two days after Jackson’s funeral, I figured the morning news shows could not possibly lead with a story about it. Wrong. The lead story was that his casket was “missing.” It had not been publicly seen since pall bearers carried it out of Staples Center. Conversely, Cronkite’s funeral was held in his long-time church with the stately tradition you’d expect. Clearly the ceremonies and coverage of them reflected each man’s professional and personal life. I suspect each would have approved of the way in which they were memorialized and remembered.

No argument that they each changed their respective industries. No argument that they’ll each be remembered for a few generations. I simply wish that an upstanding life of integrity meant more in our society. This summer’s events lead me to believe it does not.

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