Hollywood Hyperbole: Michael Jackon’s death “brought entire world to stunned halt”

November 10, 2009

One of my pet peeves is journalists who use hyperbole. You know, the kind who use patently untrue, melodramatic phrases like "the world would never be the same" or "the world mourned when Princess Diana died." That sort of thing. I devoted a whole section to this in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us .

Maybe my irritation comes from investigating claims that are exaggerated over and over again. A woman gets over a cold while at a church retreat, and it’s later reported that she was cured of cancer. A camper sees a dark figure in the woods, and it’s later reported as a Bigfoot encounter.

So when I picked up a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly (October 23) with Michael Jackson on the cover, I knew that somewhere inside I’d find some exaggeration about Jacko. Sure enough, a writer named Josh Rottenberg provided several examples of ridiculous hyperbole right off the bat. In a substance-free piece of fluff "journalism" called "Last Dance," the lead-in begins, "His tragic death last June shook the world."

Whoa, hold up. Michael Jackson’s death did not "shake the world." Of course he had millions of fans. Of course it surprised people. (Oh, and by the way, anyone want to go back and look to see how many psychics predicted Jackon’s death for 2009 at the end of last year? What’s that? Not one of them saw that coming? As I investigated after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, psychics failed to predict that minor event, but something as earth-shaking as Michael Jackson’s death should surely have appeared on some psychic’s radar!)

Only in the rarified air of craptastically exaggerated Hollywood writing did Jackson’s death "shake the world." As an editor myself, I know that sometimes the intros and headlines are written by editors, not writers, at first thought that Josh Rottenberg might not had penned the stupid and patently false claim that began his article. Yet I was proven wrong when, on page 22, the second paragraph of this "entertainment journalism" begins with "when Jackson’s sudden death brought the production– and without overstatement, the entire world– to a stunned halt." Really, Josh? Without overstatement, the entire world was brought to a stunned halt by Jackson’s death?

With those words, I surmise– without overstatement— that Josh Rottenberg of Entertainment Weekly is an idiot. This is the sort of person who uses words he doesn’t understand, the type of person who might say, "During that staff meeting, I was literally banging my head against the wall– no one was listening to my proposal."

Of course, we live in a society where words have lost their meaning. We see claims of "amazing savings" (really? If I go into the store, will I truly be "amazed" at the savings?) and "shocking revelations" (really? If I buy the magazine and turn to the story, will I be "shocked" at what I read?). According to my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary, "stunned" means "to make senseless, groggy, or dizzy; to overcome, esp. with paralyzing astonishment or disbelief." I must have missed these things happening to the entire world when Jackson died. The people around me when we heard the news were surprised for a minute; a few laughed or thought up jokes, but I didn’t see a single person "stunned," nor did I see the world come to a "halt." Perhaps Rottenberg lives in a different world.

I know that hyperbole is typical of breezy, lightweight entertainment "news." But I hold writers to a higher standard. I expect them to know the difference between literally and figuratively. I expect them to give me that facts without inserting phrases which are obviously untrue, and which blow the writer’s credibility out the window. In case you happen to miss future celebrity news that stunned the world while you weren’t paying attention, Entertainment Weekl y will keep you updated.