08/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jackson Media Miscoverage: Our Modern-Day "Bread and Circuses"

"Are you as disgusted as I am about all the Michael Jackson coverage that's hijacked TV news?" one of my newspaper readers angrily asked last week.

Disgusted, sure. Surprised? Not one bit.

If you needed any proof that we are now officially an entertainment-driven culture, the embarrassing spectacle of fawning, hagiographic coverage of the popular song-and-dance man's passing provided it.

As columnist Bob Herbert put it in his New York Times piece last week,

"The Michael-mania that has erupted since Jackson's death -- just not an appreciation of his music, but a giddy celebration of his life -- is yet another spasm of the culture opting for fantasy over reality."

We are, as Neil Postman put it in the title of his landmark 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. (Its subtitle: Public Discourse in The Age of Show Business.)

The heedless, even irresponsible Jackson-trumps-all coverage and pandering arguably reached its nadir Monday when Michael's circus-like funeral plans bumped President Obama's signing a new nuclear-weapons treaty in Moscow from the top of the network newscasts. Nuclear, schmuclear. This is Michael Jackson!

The Times' Herbert notes that after another song-and-dance man, entertainer Ronald Reagan, was elected:

"We descended as a society into a fantasyland, trying to leave the limits and consequences and obligations of the real world behind."

Many Americans have opted for fantasy over reality, as did, obviously, Jackson.

This past few days of nonstop TV happy talk about a tragically flawed (if talented) entertainer has been the most disgraceful coverage by corporate media since the days leading up the Iraq war, when seemingly every "patriotic" Pentagon P.R. idea became a live shot for cable news.

This entertainment-at-all-costs mentality is also the reason for the huge infusion of TV sports-rights cash that has arguably sullied the educational standards and degraded the campuses of so many U.S. colleges The glorification of jocks -- despite their all-too-common and obvious personal deficiencies -- is another glaring example of this sad spectacle of nonstop pandering that is the mainstream U.S. media today. (How many ESPN's are there now? Four? Five?)

Speaking of spectacles, an alarming but fascinating and eye-popping little 1958 book, Those About to Die, should be at the top of the summer reading list for anyone appalled about the ridiculous Michael-o-mania.

This almost-forgotten classic by Daniel Mannix details how the Romans literally amused themselves to death and provides a road map to where our mass culture is apparently headed.

The Colosseum was flooded -- to stage naval battles for the "Bread and Circuses" masses. "Paradise Islands" were constructed -- populated by handsome men and women who were then eaten by crocodiles. (I'm not making this up.)

Tarps were constructed over the Colosseum so that the entertainment-hungry masses could spectate for days at a time out of the hot summer sun.

Entire herds of zebras and lions were captured and brought to Rome to be slaughtered for Romans' amusement. (The logistics of all this in that time boggle the mind.)

And then, of course, there were the blood-soaked gladiator spectacles. (Mannix' book, renamed The Way of the Gladiator, became the inspiration for the film "Gladiator")

The Times' Herbert also wrote of "the extreme immaturity and grotesque irresponsibility" that surrounds the Jackson phenomenon.

If the past two weeks has done nothing else, it's shown that we've fashioned a popular culture in which no one has to grow up and act like an adult. Thanks to the networks, being severely emotionally damaged is now officially cool.

As for the business side of this equation -- and there's always a business side -- this dismal, Romanesque spectacle reminds me of the a cynical old Hollywood observation credited to Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer:

"It's the same old shit. Only the flies are different."

Not much has changed since Roman times.