Fame's Funhouse Mirror

Kathryn Lopez

7/10/2009 2:07:09 PM - Kathryn Lopez

Michael Jackson's circus of a memorial was heartbreaking. Not because Usher broke down while singing. Not for most of the reasons given by the overwrought international press corps. When a 12-year-old former contestant on "Britain's Got Talent" sang, (just a few years older than Jackson when he was first inducted into the media spotlight), it suggested that no one's learned anything.

In the wall-to-wall, breaking-news coverage of Jackson's death, there was much speculation about the pain in the singer's life that could have been responsible for his often bizarre behavior -- though many of the scandals and ugly rumors that the media had obsessed about in his latter years were put aside in favor of massive shared mourning. It was as if everyone who had ever listened to "Thriller" had suffered some traumatic loss akin to the death of a relative.

The Jackson furor took one family out of the news -- the family of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, which has suffered its own heartbreak and scandal, after Sanford admitted to having an extramarital affair. It took another Republican governor to break through the Jackson frenzy for one afternoon. When Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, set off some pre-Fourth of July surprise fireworks by announcing that she would not only not run for re-election but also resign from office, she gave the media their new story. And, televised again, was an indication that what happened to Jackson could happen again.

The media didn't destroy Michael Jackson. But there is something about public life that can crush souls, destroy families and drive people mad. Life in the spotlight means that an unwed teenager's predicament becomes fodder for national talking heads, as Palin's daughter did, shortly after her mother achieved immense fame as John McCain's vice-presidential candidate.

The decision to enter public life is made freely by someone, but in the case of a child the decision is not fully their own. Perhaps the parents are to blame for whatever comes of it. Perhaps in the case of a political family, the media needs to lay off completely when it comes to children. But it's hard to resist drama.

In drama, however, there is destruction.

Palin's resignation announcement suggested that she and her family were subject to the pains of overexposure. Some will blame her for it. Others accuse her of being an erratic quitter. Or she may also be a human being who was served up too much too soon, whose family was suffering because of it. Maybe she was a woman of obvious ambition who saw an opportunity to dial back the media onslaught and get some control over it.

As a popular child singer, Jackson was too young to do such a thing. By the time he was "Bad," and later a father swinging his child over a balcony, perhaps he was far beyond being able to show the judgment demonstrated by Palin's decision to make a change in her life and the life of her family.

You don't have to like Palin or own "Thriller" to consider the effect that massive public scrutiny has on human lives. Just a quick look at any celebrity tabloid will reveal a host of young people who have been burned by the glare of the floodlights.

Michael Jackson should be a warning. Sarah Palin should be a cautionary tale -- maybe in a special way to young moms in politics. At some point maybe we all ought to step back. Palin may have wisely decided to. Whatever the politics, whatever the entertainment genre, things like common decency and the Golden Rule dictate we look at the man in the mirror when watching human frailty on display.