IF YOU NEEDED any proof that we are now officially an entertainment-driven culture, this month's fawning, hagiographic coverage of Michael Jackson's passing provided it.

Our collective trip down this perilous path is not without precedent — or peril.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert observed: "The Michael-mania that 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." (Subtitled: "Public Discourse in The Age of Show Business").

The heedless, even irresponsible Jackson-trumps-all coverage and pandering arguably reached its nadir when Michael's memorial service bumped Barack Obama's signing a new nuclear weapons treaty in Moscow from the top of all the network newscasts.

Many Americans have opted for fantasy over reality — just like Mikey.

Following the song-and-dance man's death, the TV happy talk about the flawed (if talented) entertainer was the most disgraceful coverage by corporate media since the days leading up to the current Iraq war, when seemingly every "patriotic" Pentagon P.R. idea became a live-shot opportunity for cable news.


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Herbert also noted that after another song-and-dance man, 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."

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 campuses of so many U.S. colleges. The glorification of jocks — despite their all-too-common glaring personal deficiencies — is another prime example of this sad spectacle that is the mainstream U.S. media today. (How many ESPNs 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 at all this.

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 seems 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 soon devoured by crocodiles.

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

Entire herds of zebras and lions were captured and brought to Rome to be slaughtered for public amusement. The logistics of all this in that time boggles the mind.

And then, of course, there were the blood-soaked gladiator spectacles.

The Times' Herbert referenced "the extreme immaturity and grotesque irresponsibility" that surrounds Jackson and his fans.

We've fashioned a popular culture in which no one has to grow up and act like an adult.

Sadly, because of our relentlessly pandering and devalued mass media, being severely emotionally damaged is now officially cool.

Bill Mann can be reached at newsmann@mannpublications.org.