Michael Jackson and Privacy
The news clips from Michael Jackson’s memorial give me a reason to mount one of my favorite hobbyhorses — the change in the way that we view public grief. I defer to Dan Solove on all matters related to privacy, but this is a special case.
In April 1968, Robert F. Kennedy came to Indianapolis for a campaign stop. On that day, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The crowd gathered for RFK’s speech was unaware of this news, and he was the one who told them. There is a famous video of this speech that is audio only for RFK’s announcement of the death and the subsequent cries from the crowd. The cameraman did not want to film people in their moment of grief, and thus did not open the lens until after the news had sunk in.
Today that guy would be fired. Why? Because our media culture demands tears. Good television (and video) is now defined by capturing raw emotion. There is also (for reasons that I find baffling) a sense today that it’s a good thing to express grief publicly, whether in the context of spectacles (Princess Diana’s funeral comes to mind) or talk shows. In short, there is a diminished expectation of privacy for grief.
This extends, by the way, to public memorials. Since the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Maya Lin, people seem to assume that all victims of a great tragedy (Oklahoma City, 9/11) will become public property in stone. Memorials didn’t used to look like this, of course. Moreover, I’m not sure it would occur to people (or even be acceptable) that family members might decline this honor and want to remember their loved ones in a quiet place out of the spotlight.