By Ken Tucker
Updated June 26, 2009 at 07:48 AM EDT

The deaths on the same day of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson made the TV networks scramble. NBC decided to combine the two and broadcast what it called a Dateline Special: Two Legends. This was expedient but misguided. With all due respect to Fawcett, her contribution to pop culture could not approach Jackson’s innovations and artistry. On the other hand, Fawcett’s life story seemed saintly when juxtaposed with the scandals Jackson attracted in the latter part of his life. The result was a jarring dissonance of tone in TV news coverage.

ABC, which had earlier scheduled Barbara Walters’ Fawcett special for 10 p.m. ET, used the hour preceding it to run a Jackson special. It was anchored by Martin Bashir, the British TV reporter who became a Nightline anchor partly on the back of his 2003 interview special Living With Michael Jackson, a display that found Bashir grinning at Jackson’s eccentricities but then editing them into one of the most damning portraits of a materialistic man; in a clip shown on ABC this evening, Bashir followed Jackson on a shopping spree, announcing that Jackson had just spent half-a-million dollars for two lamps. During that interview, Jackson admitted on-camera to offering his bed to a child whose face was pixilated onscreen.

Walters asked Bashir on Thursday night, “Will he be remembered for his great talent, or his scandals?” And Bashir had the gall to say piously, “His great talent.”

Walters’ Fawcett hour was, by contrast, a tidier but still moving piece of work. There was a nicely edited series of interviews Walters conducted with Fawcett over the decades, and it was striking how articulate and self-possessed she was right from the start, while still just a pop-culture sex symbol. (Those young women who’ve graduated from The Hills could learn a lot by looking at Fawcett’s tapes.)

In interviews conducted last week, Walters spoke extensively to Ryan O’Neal, who, no matter how self-congratulatory he can sometimes seem, came across as a thoroughly dedicated man, displaying a brash jocularity even in the midst of his grief. ABC had been promoting all week a clip in which O’Neal said he wanted to marry Fawcett “as soon as she can say yes.” What they didn’t show was his joke after that: “Maybe we can just nod her head.” It was the kind of endearing laughing-in-the-face-of-death humor that — by the accounts here from O’Neal, Fawcett’s friend Alana Stewart, and Fawcett’s doctor — Farrah herself appreciated.

Fawcett’s life has become a closed chapter. Jackson’s death, however, remains a series of open questions. As the days go by, TV coverage will focus more on him than her. We’ll see how televison-news balances the artistry versus the scandals.