June 26, 2009

Royal Treatment for Fallen Celebrities

Evening Herald, Aug. 23, 1926. (Newseum collection)
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Evening Herald, Aug. 23, 1926. (Newseum collection)

Los Angeles Times, Aug. 6, 1962. (Newseum collection)
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Los Angeles Times, Aug. 6, 1962. (Newseum collection)

Memphis Press-Scimitar, Aug. 17, 1977. (Newseum collection)
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Memphis Press-Scimitar, Aug. 17, 1977. (Newseum collection)

Liverpool Echo, Dec. 9, 1980. (Newseum collection)
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Liverpool Echo, Dec. 9, 1980. (Newseum collection)

News of the World, Aug. 31, 1997. (Newseum collection)
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News of the World, Aug. 31, 1997. (Newseum collection)

USA Today, July 19, 1999. (Newseum collection)
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USA Today, July 19, 1999. (Newseum collection)

Michael Jackson’s sudden death June 25 at 50 was international news, trumpeted by bold headlines and colorful graphics usually reserved for the deaths of kings, queens and other dignitaries.

Jackson and actress Farrah Fawcett, who died on the same day, were given front-page treatment fit for a "King of Pop" and America’s favorite angel.

A look through the Newseum’s collection of historic front pages, on display in the News Corporation News History Gallery, revealed that when A-list celebrities died young or at the peak of stardom, their deaths were given A-one treatment, occupying most, if not all, of Page One.

When heartthrob actor Rudolph Valentino died in August 1926 of "poisoning of the heart walls," the Los Angeles Evening Herald published a "special extra edition" with every detail of the actor’s life and death. The "sheik," as Valentino was called, was 31 years old.

"Even as life was ebbing away and darkness setting in," the Herald reported, "he turned his dark, handsome face to those gathered at the bedside and, with a wan smile, said: ‘Don’t pull the curtains down, I’m feeling fine and I want the sunlight to greet me.’"

The Scoop on Instant News

By Bridget Gutierrez, exhibits writer

The first news report of music icon Michael Jackson’s shocking death was not broadcast through the mainstream media but by TMZ.com, a celebrity gossip Web site.

TMZ’s scoop sent traditional news outlets scrambling to confirm the news. In its June 26 edition, the Los Angeles Times credited TMZ with getting the story on Jackson’s hospitalization and for beating by seven minutes the Times’s own Internet report of the superstar’s sudden death.

After TMZ’s report, news of Jackson’s death spread quickly through the digital universe. Traffic on Facebook and Google soared. Twitter was so overwhelmed with user posts that the site was reported to have crashed repeatedly.

"We saw an instant doubling of tweets per second the moment the story broke," Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told the Times. Stone called it the most dramatic jump in Twitter usage since Barack Obama won the presidential election last fall.

In 1962, the "unclad body" of 36-year-old actress Marilyn Monroe was found in her bed. "Sleeping Pill Overdose Blamed," the Los Angeles Times announced on its front page, which promised more photos and stories on the star’s life. Monroe’s death overshadowed news on the same page that the Soviet Union had tested a 40-megaton nuclear bomb high in the atmosphere.

"Memphis Leads World in Mourning for Elvis Presley," the singer’s hometown Memphis Press-Scimitar declared in 1977. The paper announced that it would print a special "Elvis Presley Edition" in conjunction with Memphis’s other major newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, to meet the demands for souvenir copies. "The King," as Presley was called, was 42 years old.

"Humans have always been interested in the particularly powerful, beautiful, accomplished — and we seem to take a certain perverse satisfaction in watching these people, whom we have elevated, brought down to earth," said Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism at New York University and a Newseum consultant. "Death, which has always been big news — perhaps the biggest news — certainly brings [them] down to earth."

On Dec. 9, 1980, the Liverpool Echo blanketed its front page with the death of the city’s native son, former Beatle John Lennon.

"After a man police described as a ‘local screwball’ pumped five bullets into Lennon, he yelled ‘I’m shot,’ and staggered up a few steps into the apartment building where he lived," the Echo reported. "And as the 40-years-old [sic] superstar lay dying in the arms of his wife, Yoko Ono, he whispered ‘Help me,’ according to neighbour Carrie Rouse."

When Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997, Britain’s News of the World printed a "6 a.m. shock issue." The "full tragedy" of the death of the 36-year-old princess was continued on pages 2 and 3.

USA Today devoted two sections of its July 19, 1999, edition to the death of 38-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr., considered the crown prince of America’s "royal" family. Coverage of Kennedy, his wife and his sister-in-law, both of whom died with him in the crash of the private plane Kennedy piloted, included a front-page cover story, reaction quotes, a graphic of the pilot’s seat and a synopsis of Kennedy’s life and times.

In 2008, the news of actor Heath Ledger’s accidental death and newsman Tim Russert’s sudden death from a heart attack was splashed across newspaper front pages and magazine covers, as well as their Internet counterparts. Coverage was swift, immediate and intense on 24-hour cable and in blogs.

"Certainly, there are more places for this news," said Stephens. "And, to be fair, all these places have their own need for news, so there is a need for more and more information on the deceased."

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