Does the American Dream Have to Die With Michael Jackson?
Forbes Everett Landis
Do you think it is a good idea to keep silent about the attacks on one of the most visible achievers of the American Dream? Are we not forfeiting our children’s future into the hands of bullies? Is it not time for us to speak up about the damage opportunistic journalism is doing to our culture? --
Last year, the news of pop-superstar Michael Jackson’s premature death shocked the world. As I am a classical music fan, not a connoisseur of pop music or any of its stars, Jackson’s death did not immediately evoke any particular emotion in me. I just let it go.
But as the days went by, and as I passively soaked in more and more news reports on Jackson’s death, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable. A man had passed away: What need was there for the media to so eagerly show humiliating images of how Jackson would have looked on his death-bed? I was prompted to look into the case more thoroughly.
After more than a year, although I am not a Michael Jackson fan per se, on closer inspection I have come to admire his scale of contributions and humanitarian messages espoused within songs of his. And despite my hitherto skeptical view of the sometimes frenzied remarks made by Jackson’s hard-core followers, I feel the need to say this :
To keep the American dream alive for our children, we should stop abusing our talented and creative spirits out of jealousy and misunderstanding.
Jackson had to deal with the media condemning him as strange, weird, and even labeling him a fr.eak, both figuratively and literally. My opinion about this is clear: Though at times, to subjective eyes, Jackson might have looked ‘different,’ half of this eccentricity was due to the fact that he was born to be an artist inevitably different from others because of his imaginative and creative nature, and half because he was forced into being so unconventional by a degree of media pressure and fame few, if any, have ever experienced. Being different from others does not equate being harmful to others. As long as one does not violate others’ human rights, one has the right to be him or herself. In a society that prioritizes human rights and freedom, I find no justification for hurtful attacks on people who are perceived to be ‘different.’ These kinds of attacks are especially sordid when they involve the spreading of knowingly false rumors for financial gain. After Jackson’s acquittal on alleged child related charges in 2005, several journalists, such as Aphrodite Jones, came forward to confess that most of the media in attendance intentionally put objectivity aside in covering the Michael Jackson case by fragmenting the facts divulged in court, presenting only anti-Jackson reports.
The human race has quite often owed its scientific or artistic progress to the “weird” and the “eccentric.” Let us consider, for example, Galileo Galilei, who was charged for openly discussing Copernican theory, a concept seen as sinful and roundly condemned at that time; later, of course, this theory went on to become the accepted standard of scientific understanding of the universe. We might also stop to consider how treasonable the very idea of democracy once was, how dangerous the aristocracy felt it to be; later, democracy became the world’s prevailing political philosophy. We can also remember that the concept of equality between : women and men, among different ethnicities, or diverse religions, was derided when it first emerged. Had she not thought differently from others, might Mother Teresa not have been a stay-at-home mom instead of traveling to the slums of India and risking her life for humanity?
Keeping the history of these exceptional ideas and people in mind, I can almost guarantee that if one had killed all the “freaks” among our Australopithecine ancestors 3.5 million years ago, our species might not have made it to the 21st century. We might very well have remained a much more primitive species, one without the use of fire and the wheel, let alone an orchestra, or democracy, or computers. Is it not, after all, diversity that allows for evolution?
In other words, "weirdness" is sometimes the inevitable result of an exceptional imaginative ability that sees no boundaries in search of all the creative possibilities. As long as such individuals do us no harm, we should let them be. It is our duty to be respectful of those who are different not only because every human being is entitled to freedom, but also because diversity is at the root of human survival; diversity or “difference” is what allows for new ways of looking at things and indeed for innovation and progress to occur.
To those who think that Jackson’s spoken voice was peculiar, I would say that I see no significance to it. The spoken voice cannot be uncoupled from the singing voice that so many lauded. It might also be helpful to consider this information in order to broaden understanding of the global context: there are countries where people respect those who speak softly, in a calm, non-aggressive manner. The American standard, where a loud voice is seemingly necessary to assertiveness, is not the only standard in the world.
To those who criticize the 'King of Pop' for purchasing Neverland, I pose this question: Would you have survived without buying a Neverland-sized residential property if you were in reality never able to explore any place alone without being horded by an ensuing media and public frenzy whenever you stepped out of your front door? A huge residence with a vast garden might have been the only possible way for this worldwide megastar to relax and enjoy some fresh air without constant intrusion from the public. In conversations such as with famed animal welfare activist Dr. Jane Goodall , he spoke of his love and concern for animals and nature, which he simply enjoyed surrounding himself with at his personal retreat. After all, Jackson earned his money through incredible hard work and a perfectionist work-ethic. In light of his Guinness record-making support of no less than 39 charities, it may very well be hypocritical to criticize his spending habits. It is noteworthy that Jackson regularly donated his share of proceeds from his concerts to charity and during his career, he gave away upwards of 300 million dollars to philanthropic efforts.
Handwritten lyrics to "Innocent Man" (unreleased) by Michael Jackson
Having demonstrated that there is nothing inherently wrong with living unconventionally, the question now turns to whether or not Jackson ever harmed anyone with his behavior. Here I will discuss the child related allegations leveled against him. ---
In discussing the two instances of allegations Jackson was faced with, I would like to focus my attention primarily on the 1993 case due to the fact that the more recent (2003-2005) accusations ended with Jackson receiving a full legal acquittal on all counts, the extremely low credibility of the accuser’s mother being one factor in this exoneration. In other words, Jackson was found not-guilty so I believe we must discount this case.
Considering that the laws of most U.S. states set down one’s right to sue anyone without being counter-sued solely in retribution for one’s lawsuit, getting sued is relatively easy. Thus, the extortion of popular and wealthy persons is an increasingly attractive ploy for those seeking a quick buck. Fast and easy money may once have come at a personal price, that being distrust from one’s community. But, with cities growing ever larger and more impersonal, an individual’s local reputation is of gradually thinning importance, resulting in more room for thievery. To some mischief minded, the risk of exposure as an extortionist might thus seem lower when compared to the potentially enormous financial benefits of a scam. As a result, a millionaire, especially one whose professional value is greatly magnified by fame, is more vulnerable than ever. According to the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect, in 1998, 71% of the abuse reports were revealed to be false or unfounded. The false accusation rate even rises to over 90% when a custody battle and money is involved (as was the case between the plaintiff’s parents in the 1993 allegations against Jackson, who was a friend of the child's mother). In the 1993 case, the charges never went to trial but were settled out of court.
The record illustrates that the financially troubled accuser’s father had previously approached Jackson’s representatives with a monetary request well before he sued for the alleged molestation, demonstrating that he would have refrained from filing suit in exchange for money. Would any parent with real care for justice and the well-being of his or her children make such a deal?
As evidence for my position, I present the recorded phone conversation in which the accuser’s father is heard saying that everything [is] going “according to a certain plan,” that he would "win big time” and that Jackson would be "ruined forever"...if he did not get what he wanted. In the same conversation when asked how this would affect his son, the father replied, "That's irrelevant to me..." This sounds far more like the words of a mercenary than those of a father concerned with justice for his son.
Geraldine Hughes, who had worked in the office of the prosecuting team in the 93’ case against Jackson, reveals what really happened behind the scenes, with all the details the media failed to acknowledge and report, about how the boy’s father very early on went to Jackson demanding 20 million dollars for a movie deal otherwise he would make claims of molestation. When Jackson refused, the boy’s father went not to the police, but to a civil attorney and not long after the claims leaked to the media. It was only after the coverage of the story really blew up that Jackson was strongly advised by his attorneys to settle the civil suit and a settlement was paid by the singer's insurance carrier. Concerns which factored in this advice to settle was the violation of Jackson's Fifth Amendment right to not testify against himself in a criminal matter; the damage relentless one-sided media coverage of the charges was doing to his reputation and career; his rapidly declining health from stress during this period and potential jury bias. Also to note is that statistics indicate that around 95 % of civil suits get settled out of court and pertinently, civil settlement cannot be construed as an admission of guilt.
After settlement of the civil suit, Jackson was prepared to fight in the criminal court. In any situation, a criminal case cannot be settled out of court. After the settlement was paid out, however, no criminal charges were ever filed by the boy’s father, and the 13-year-old boy at the center of the allegations refused to testify in a criminal case.
It should be emphasized that Jackson was never indicted even after an intensive 13-month investigation including interviews with over 400 witnesses in and out of the country, extensive searching of his residential properties, and even a 25 minute full-body examination. Two grand juries refused to indict the singer for lack of evidence, and in the six years before the statute of limitation had expired, no criminal charges were ever filed.
The FBI which had investigated the singer during the 1993 and 2003 charges also found no evidence against him , as was revealed when Jackson's FBI file was made public after his death.
Having discussed the mischaracterization of what people might dismiss as “weird,” and having made plain the falsity of the allegations made against Jackson, accusations that in my view look suspiciously extortionate, as highlighted above, I would now like to consider Jackson’s moral conduct with reference to the caricature presented of him:
Regarding integrity, Jackson’s deeds and lifestyle, apart from the media’s fabricated stories, remained innocent and appropriate. In fact, his decency made him look almost old-fashioned, even when he was young, when compared to many entertainers’ indulgence in sex, alcohol, or drugs. In interviews, Jackson indicated that he felt it highly inappropriate to remark publicly on his sexual life. This strikes me as an example of his dignity and modesty. However, this very reserve may ironically have fueled further baseless speculation about Jackson’s sexual orientation. I wish to ask : is publicly questioning a person’s sexual life not way more improper than that person’s choice of silence out of a desire for privacy regarding the same? The fact that Jackson was not involved in a multitude of sex scandals with women, a fact which should normally invite respect, seems unfairly to have been justification for the media to pathologize Jackson. It is beyond ridiculous to construct the lack of lasciviousness and scandal as itself scandalous and suspect.
Michael Jackson 1958-2009
People who knew the entertainer have remarked that it was a rare thing for Jackson to curse, especially when he was younger. Only after suffering numerous hate campaigns founded on falsehoods did he insert a very small amount of profanity into his songs, in response to a world which had betrayed him so deeply. Even then, his use of profanity stayed away from vitriolic attacks, but came across more as an artistic expression of deep anguish in songs which described his frustration with the situation. For instance, songs such as "Scream" or "Tabloid Junkie", both from his HIStory album . Some lyrics from the latter song go thus :
“It’s slander with the words you use
...Assassinate and mutilate as the hounding media in hysteria
...You say it's not a sin, But with your pen you torture men, Then why do we keep foolin' ourselves
Just because you read it in a magazine, Or see it on the TV screen, Don't make it factual…”
Jackson also faced many accusations regarding his appearance and changed skin tone. But, turning this around, what might this suggest about those themselves who so scrutinized the way he looked? What does it say about their own biases and prejudices? And about the people who claimed to know details of every surgical procedure Jackson allegedly had, calling him a freak without even having seen him in person? Or who refused to acknowledge the pigment destroying disease Vitiligo which he was a sufferer of?
After the 2003 allegations, the media repeatedly displayed pictures of Jackson looking worn out, not out of questions about his state of well-being, but it would seem, simply in order to taunt him. Now while Jackson may have begun to look rather gaunt during the trial, does not taking somebody’s tired physical appearance as direct evidence of inner abnormality only reveal our own superficiality ? Maybe , just maybe anyone else would have looked equally fatigued had they suffered the anguish of having to relentlessly fight vicious and false allegations all the while being condemned in the court of public opinion even before being found guilty by the legal system. Whereas under the laws of the land, one is granted the presumption of innocence until they are actually found guilty.
On the topic of morality : Which is more admirable, giving people hope by regularly visiting and donating to hospitals and orphanages, or telling scandalous stories based on speculation or lies? Which is more despicable, pursuing an exceptionally rigorous dedication to artistic perfection, or giving in to jealousy and greed to bring down an artist? The tabloid press, of course, uses this strategy on most celebrities and public figures. One might argue that Michael Jackson had learned to use the press as cynically as it used him ; that he , especially in the early days, once believed that “all publicity is good publicity,” One might even go so far as to say that Jackson purposely flaunted his eccentricities to generate press and in turn album sales. He did, after all, have a fine artistic sense of the dramatic. Maybe so, but this seems true up to an extent only : it might be the case that being an international headliner he could not escape the tabloid press any where he went and so he attempted to make lemons into lemonade. Here my issue is what the media’s handling of Jackson devolved into, ultimately devouring him. And what this says about societal norms and ethics.
In this matter , critics have suggested that Jackson did not oppose false information adamantly enough. Pondering that charge, I suspect that having been abused by media intrusiveness from his early days in the spotlight, Jackson might have come to feel vulnerable and victimized. He reported feeling very uncomfortable giving press interviews since he said his words were often taken out of context and even misquoted. As he resignedly confided to an associate that the press would not highlight good things because to the press, good news did not sell. No matter what he did, or what he accomplished. Rather the accent was always on sensationalizing even the trivial, leaving him to deal with an equation where visiting the burns unit at a hospital where he had made donations and where he was casually inspecting the equipment got translated into outlandish headlines of 'Wacko Jacko' bizarrely sleeping in an oxygen chamber. Realistically speaking, had Jackson attempted to fight every rumor reported or printed about him, he would be left with no time or even resources to do anything else. Instead he stated having to “run the race of endurance” to withstand all the assaults made against his name throughout his career. In the end ,we must ask ourselves, what is more faithful and true, labeling someone a freak without even having met them personally and without possessing any evidence of wrongdoing by that person? Or showing fortitude in the face of hostility and simply expressing who one really is by letting their work speak for itself ?
Some might argue that the attacks Jackson had to suffer from the media and from consumers can be justified as a natural price to pay for the fame and fortune. No, I say. That is too high a price being charged from a human being. Those who knew Jackson said that the 2005 trial and its coverage had a very devastating impact on him. Those attacks had after a point exceeded all justifiable limits . To live under such harsh scrutiny, what kind of psychological and emotional damage might that inflict on the recipient? May I note that he was not paid to endure pain, but for his relentless efforts and dedication to his craft.
The American media have disgraced themselves by displaying to the world the schoolyard bullying of a talented and creative soul with great achievements . Now consider how this public bullying of a legendary figure might present itself to a new generation of youth, how it might play out in their minds and affect their morale ... Might this type of public bullying not discourage youngsters of today from pursuing their own creativity, their own inner diversity, for fear that they themselves might incur such abuse ?
The coverage of Michael Jackson’s life poses among other things, these questions to America: Does fulfilling the American Dream require that one subject oneself to unending media intrusion, to lies about one’s self so that newspapers get sold, and where one unproven accusation is enough to undo years and years of achievement and all the hard work and initiative that would necessarily have been part of the process? Do you want your children to live in a world where pursuing the American Dream involves the risks of a nightmare of mistrust and exploitation?
I refer again to the journalists who later admitted their purposely distorted and biased reporting on the Michael Jackson child molestation cases. If we recall for a moment the enormous number of journalists who surrounded the Santa Barbara County courthouse, one can surmise that the handful of journalists who came clean about their deception makes up only a tiny fraction of those involved.
I suspect that there were hundreds more who remained silent and who knowingly bent the truth to sell papers and boost network ratings. I also suppose that there are multitudes of people who, having received one-sided information, once believed the larger than life Jackson to be no better than a freakish criminal, but who, after his death felt compelled to research the facts themselves, and have now come to see him just as one of us, a burdened human being and a caring parent, who also happened to be a uniquely talented artist and a devoted philanthropist, who had remained for many a global ambassador. Perhaps these now better-informed members of the public have come to doubt the veracity of the media itself, not just when it comes to Michael Jackson, but in general.
I speculate that there is a pervasive feeling that it is safer to say nothing when it comes to Michael Jackson for fear of being promptly stigmatized. However, we need to address the implications of such silent behavior. What does our silence about the attacks on one of the most visible achievers of the American Dream say? What does it say in light of the American Constitution's declaration of the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ? If we play it safe, we are forfeiting our children’s future into the hands of bullies. It is time for us to speak up about the damage opportunistic journalism is doing to our culture. As Edmund Burke once penned, “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
The above article is used with permission. Forbes Everett Landis is a devoted parent who sees his mission in educational area in a global context.