Michael Jackson: A tale of two moonwalks (and a ‘Thank You’ from the Ayatollahs)

While Apollo astronauts conquered the Moon, Michael Jackson took over the Earth...

While Apollo astronauts conquered the Moon, Michael Jackson took over the Earth...

What a pity that Michael Jackson missed the 40th anniversary of the first Apollo moonwalk by only a few weeks.

He was only 10 when Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong took that historic first lunar step on July 20, 1969 and was probably among the 500 million people — the largest TV audience the world had known at that time — who watched it live. Fourteen years later, Jackson would invent his own kind of ‘moonwalk’.

First performed for his song ‘Billie Jean’ on a U.S. TV show in March 1983, Jackson’s dance technique that gives the illusion of the dancer stepping forward while actually moving backward gained worldwide popularity and became his signature move.

Like that historic ‘moonwalk’ 40 years ago, Jackson’s untimely death on June 25, 2009 created ripples that was felt worldwide. News of his sudden death crashed some news or social networking websites, and stalled others. Even the mighty Google, now the world’s largest media operation, slowed down; Google News was inaccessible for a while.

This is the opening of my latest op ed essay, inspired by the media and public reactions to Michael Jackson’s sudden death. Titled ‘King of Pop Moonwalks to Online Immortality’, it has just been published by the Asian Media Forum website.

I must admit that I’m more a fan of the original Apollo moonwalk than Michael’s version. I was three and a half years when the first Moon landing happened, which remains my earliest childhood memory that can be traced to a specific date.

Moonwalking all over the news - Cartoon © 2009 Creators Syndicate

Moonwalking all over the news - Cartoon © 2009 Creators Syndicate

All the same, as an observer of media and popular culture trends, I have always been interested in the Michael Jackson phenomenon. The crux of my new essay is captured in this para: “He was not the world’s first mega-star — in the zenith of their careers, the Beatles and Elvis Presley were similar globalised cultural icons. But two waves of communication technology, arriving in quick succession, propelled Jackson to unprecedented heights in popular culture: satellite television and the Internet.”

I look back at how these twin technologies transformed far-away Jackson into a local icon across Asia. I also recall a 2001 documentary named Michael Jackson Comes to Manikganj. Directed by Indian journalist Nupur Basu, it probed how far and wide satellite television was influencing and impacting culture, society and even politics of South Asia. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed on the film, along with nearly two dozen other South Asians.)

Read Nupur Basu’s own recent recollections of how she came across Michael Jackson in remote parts of South Asia, courtesy satellite TV.

The essay ends noting how Jackson could not quite ride the Internet wave the way he did the satellite TV wave. I share my thoughts on how the world’s online population — now over 1.5 billion people according to one estimate — reacted to the news that King of Pop was no more.

The news created a data tsunami of its own on the web, which incidentally – and half the world away – provided a much need respite for the Ayatollahs of Iran…Read the full essay and find out why!

Read earlier blog post: 26 June 2009: Michael Jackson (1958-2009): Mixed celebrity, entertainment and good causes

Tabloid science maybe imperfect, but it’s still better than no science coverge!

WCSJ London

Raised on popular culture, I have always been an admirer of tabloid journalism – which means using popular formats to reach out to a mass audience in newspapers or broadcasting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this: we might even argue that the tabloid approach is the only way to achieve truly mass media (with all else being niche media reaching to smaller demographic groups).

So I was delighted to be on a panel with two leading British tabloid journalists and a popular radio host from South Africa during the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London from June 30 – July 2, 2009.

We had to address this question: Does science coverage in the media need to be highbrow?

My own, personal answer is NO — it need not be! And I’ve spent a good part of my two decades of work in the media experimenting and showing that communicating science can be fun — both for us communicators and our audiences.

But I pointed out that science is still being covered in sections of Asian media in the more traditional, classical way, just like science itself is still an elitist pursuit in many of our societies.

L to R: Paul Sutherland, space correspondent of The Sun, UK; Christina Scott, radio and web journalist, South Africa; David Derbyshire, Environment editor, The Daily Mail, UK; Nalaka Gunawardene, Director/CEO, TVE Asia Pacific

L to R: Paul Sutherland, space correspondent of The Sun, UK; Christina Scott, radio and web journalist, South Africa; David Derbyshire, Environment editor, The Daily Mail, UK; Nalaka Gunawardene, Director/CEO, TVE Asia Pacific

I said: “We might call this coverage ‘broadsheet approach’ in print; or ‘bluechip documentary’ format on television. And they are both unsustainable! They are also endangered in these hard times for the mainstream media in most economies.

“So going the tabloid path is a practical and pragmatic way to deliver science stories and science information to a mass audience or readership. We’re doing it in different ways in the Asian media!”

In my remarks, I gave some examples where science is jazzed up (rather than dumbed down) for popular consumption on Asian television. For example, how solar and lunar eclipses provide fodder for endless stories on our numerous news channels. Such coverage, fleeting and superficial as it might often be, takes the wonders of science and Nature to more people than anyone else can.

I argued that the path to the mass audiences in Asia is through news, sports and entertainment programming. We have our own niche, factual channels – Discovery, National Geographic, Animal Planet and their local equivalents. They have a loyal but small audience. They do excellent work. But where numbers are concerned, they cannot – yet! – compete with the outreach and appeal of broadcast radio, TV and newspapers. Neither can the online and mobile media, even though their outreach is growing fast.

Things don’t always go right, however. Doing wall-to-wall coverage of news demands producers and reporters to tackle a variety of topics and subjects — including specialised science stories. Some handle this better than others. In their race for ratings and revenue, a few ‘dress up’ the stories a bit too much.

Television science: aspiration or reality?

Television science: aspiration or reality?

A good example was how some Indian news channels handled the so-called ‘Big Bang experiment’ in September 2008, when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was commissioned. The mega-science experiment was interesting in its own right, but it wasn’t apparently exciting enough for at least two channels — Aaj Tak and India TV. Their coverage running up to the event speculated about its “catastrophic effect on the world” – effectively end of the world.

Their coverage caused panic, which led to at least one attributable death. This prompted the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to caution the channels for spreading “misinformation, fear and horror” among viewers. It advised the channels to exercise restraint in presenting such issues.

I call this the ’24/7 TV Deficit’ in Asian broadcasting. The long term response to this is to invest in training and capacity building of journalists and producers already working in the media. For the most part, they learn on the job, making mistakes on the air. This is far from ideal.

Here’s how I summed up: ‘Tabloid science coverage’ – in print or broadcast – may be imperfect in some ways. But our choice is either that, or nothing. Our challenge is to make the process and product better as we go along.

We urgently need to unleash scientific knowledge and understanding in matters of public interest and public policy. We can’t afford the ALL or NOTHING approach.