A full year has elapsed since the world lost legendary pop star Michael Jackson. His death had an immediate effect on millions of people worldwide, and not only was it a definitive pop culture moment but also a piece of hard news that most of the networks covered like a major election or a natural disaster. It required everybody here in the MTV Newsroom to be on high alert and to play their best game (which they absolutely did, from the moment the first rumors about the ambulance arriving at Jackson's house all the way up to the stories breaking today).
June 25, 2009 started off like any other Thursday, with the usual slate of news stories. The biggest thing mentioned in our morning meeting was that Farrah Fawcett had passed away, and we were trying to come up with concepts to pay tribute to her. The day wore on as usual, until a story broke late in the afternoon. The word got around the office quickly: Michael Jackson had been taken to the hospital. There was confusion, as some outlets were (correctly) reporting that he was already dead, though there were other reports that he was doing just fine. In the time it took the news team to confirm one part of the story, another part of the story would evolve. I was actually on the phone with somebody discussing the idea that Jackson might die when writer Eric Ditzian told me that his death was confirmed.
The whole energy of the day changed. It was late, and people were probably thinking about packing it in for the night. But they stuck around, frantically calling contacts as we tried to get people on the ground with cameras in Los Angeles. We went live so quickly that it seemed almost instantaneous (though it had to have taken a few hours). Everybody just kept sticking around, looking for things to do. It was mostly to serve the audience and pay respect to a definitive artist in the histories of both pop music and MTV, but there was also a sense of loss felt by everybody who was working here. For the generation of people in the employ of MTV News, Michael Jackson was a massive influence and inspiration. For many, his were the first albums we ever bought or were interested in. He was the gateway to music and pop culture for many of us, and the fact that he had died required a certain amount of processing.
There are two clear things I remember from working that night. The first was the fact that I tried to interview the guy in the Elmo costume in Times Square about his reaction to Jackson's death (he just shook his head sadly). The second (and arguably more important) thing was that everybody seemed to react genuinely at first. By the second day, many people had contextualized Jackson's death, treating it as a big cultural moment because they recognized it as such. But in those first few hours, everybody I talked to seemed to have genuine reactions. They weren't worried about feeling the correct thing in the context of history. They were just reacting to a thing that had happened. With the news cycle on a constant loop, it's hard for anybody to have an honest reaction to any given event, mostly because anything that happens is instantly evaluated, re-evaluated and compartmentalized into sound bites and easily digestible historical contexts. But the first day of Jackson's passing was different. People just listened to the music and reacted. In a brilliant move, MTV just started playing Jackson videos on a loop, which allowed the man's songs to speak for themselves and gave anybody who wanted access to his life's work.
Over time, as the narrative of his final hours unfolded, his memorial service came together and the fallout started to collect, Jackson morphed into a permanent icon, the sort of person who exists more as a concept than as an actual person. But in those first 24 hours, he was simply a brilliant artist who went before his time. MTV News was there, and I'd like to think we became a part of his legacy.