When Iranian Democracy And Pop Culture Collides

When the news that Michael Jackson had died broke yesterday, my initial response was in this tweet.

“Who wants to bet that Michael Jackson’s death will push the Iranian election out of the U.S. news?”

Less than 24 hours later, the U.S. news media is saturated with stories about Michael Jackson. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The real death yesterday was the Iranian election protest movement in the U.S. news media.  The lead story was how the now illegitimate Iranian government was systematically shutting down the protest movement by beating, gassing and shooting protesters, arresting anyone who had shown support against the election result, and suppressing all news reporting in the name of restoring order.  Today, in the wake of Michael Jackson’s untimely death, you have to hunt for the lead story—if there is one—in the U.S. news media.

Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett both died this week.  But neither one of them had the same paparazzi-fueled celebrity cachet of Michael Jackson to push the Iranian election protest out of the U.S. news media—and the American consciousness.  Why is it that U.S. news media is so eager to switch away from a protest movement that might change the balance of power in the Middle East if given the opportunity to blossom, flourish and moderate the tone of an anti-Western government?

With the illegitimate Iranian government cracking down on the opposition news media, restricting journalists access to people and protest sites, and sending international journalists out of the country, there’s no one on the ground to report the news.  The traditional U.S. news media had to rely on the non-traditional sources like Twitter and YouTube.  Technology that wasn’t around during the Tiananmen Square protest movement in China twenty years ago (except for one video that made popular culture).  Now Iranian citizens can bypass the restrictions of their own corrupt government to report the news to the outside world.  Citizen journalism has always been regarded as inferior to traditional journalism for lacking the ethical training to report the story without bias (which seems to be an endangered species as the media companies promote controversies to gain market share and sell advertising), but citizens can get into areas of society where a government-authorized press badge cannot.

Not only has technology undermine the U.S. news media traditional role as gatekeepers of what is seen and heard in America, they can be shellacked into providing more coverage.  Both CNN and MSNBC been criticized for not having relevant weekend coverage during the height of the protests when people wanted more news.  With Michael Jackson’s untimely death, who represented the best and the worse of American society, the U.S. news media can now conveniently switch away from the serious to the frivolous while the illegitimate Iranian government can breath a sigh of relief that they can continue to consolidate power without the harsh glare of the U.S. news media shining down on them.