Covering Michael Jackson

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Michael Jackson's death yesterday at age 50 is a tragedy for his children and the rest of the Jackson family, as well as a sad and surprising event for his millions of fans around the world.

The circumstances also make it a useful moment for understanding the media world we live in today, especially here in L.A.

Reports that Jackson was stricken at home in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles set off a media frenzy that is wholly expected and appropriate for such a pop culture icon.

But if you started watching how the breaking news was handled on the web and TV, as I did, you saw a lot of flailing and confusion. With one noteworthy exception.

While mainstream newsrooms played it cautious and were slow to react, or flopped between conflicting reports like the LA Times did, the steadiest hand was, of all places, that of celebrity news site TMZ.

The website owned by Time Warner had the scoop on paramedics being called to Jackson's home and on Jackson being taken to UCLA. And, most notably, TMZ eventually was the first to say credibly that Jackson was dead.

And it did all this reporting with an air of confidence. No scrambling or apparent guessing. And it shouldn't be so surprising.

Despite the hip youthful image that TMZ tries to project on its TV show and website, the site is actually in the hands of Harvey Levin, a veteran TV journalist in Los Angeles.

The site pushes the envelope on gossip and celebrity chasing. But on hard news, it has the sources to get the story and the journalistic chops to restrain itself and get it right.

The LA Times found itself chasing TMZ and, in its online persona, getting swept up in the excitement. The Times' official Twitter poster sent out a breaking news tweet saying that Jackson had died, then a few minutes later backtracked and admitted the death was still being confirmed.

Later, at 2:46 p.m., the Times' Twitter spokesman had the paper calling Jackson in a coma. Not until 3:15 did a Twitter post go out with the Times agreeing that, yes, Jackson had died.

By then TMZ had called it for half an hour. Its update that Jackson was dead transitioned smoothly from the initial 1:30 news break on TMZ that Jackson was in trouble.

TMZ was able to reach a family member to confirm that cardiac arrest was involved. Jackson's father Joe confirmed for TMZ by phone that the situation looked grim.

Those first reports already had the details that the pop icon was not breathing with no pulse when the paramedics arrived. Gone in all ways except for the paperwork.

We now know, again mainly because of TMZ coverage, that the 911 call reports a doctor trying frantically to pump Jackson's heart back to life. Paramedics wanted to just call the coroner, but the private doctor at the scene insisted that he be taken to the hospital.

TMZ has been out front today too with news on the autopsy and the police interest in talking to Jackson's personal doctor – as well as reaction from celebrities.

TMZ has led the way before, most notably on the Mel Gibson arrest and anti-Semitic ranting a couple of years back.

The site did not get drawn into yesterday's other big online gossip explosion, the fake news that actor Jeff Goldblum had also died.

So if there's a lesson in all this, it's that there's still tremendous value in having old-line journalistic values practiced on the web.

Even, and perhaps especially, on the so-called social networks such as Twitter and Facebook where some people will say - or believe - anything.

What counts, still, is getting the story and getting right.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.