Case Study: The Caricature
Systematic media brainwashing over a period in excess of two and a half decades succeeded in turning a genuinely innovative musical genius and gentle man into a laughingstock -- a joke -- a caricature. A caricature is defined as “an exaggeration by means of often ludicrous distortion of parts or characteristics in art or literature.”
From the time his talent made him a household name in 1984 until his death in 2009, the public was conditioned to think of Michael Jackson in the following terms: “odd,” “freak,” “weird,” “bizarre,” “strange,” “Wacko Jacko,” “predator,” “pervert,” and “pedophile.” Propaganda and Inflammatory words did immeasurable violence not only to Mr. Jackson but to the world, depriving it of authentic, factual knowledge of a man who, while he has been called the ‘greatest entertainer the world has ever known,’ was also the most inexhaustible humanitarian and lobbyist for change in our cultural memory. Future generations have been cheated, too; Mr. Jackson’s next discipline was to be film direction, by his own admission, and the world will never know what further contributions he might have made had he been alive to make them.
Examined individually, and with a bit of common sense, each of the major stories contributing to the notoriety of a legend, make logical sense in the context of Mr. Jackson’s life. Taken out of context, embellished, and sensationalized, they paint a caricature, not a biography. An overwhelming preponderance of the parodies constructed about Mr. Jackson had a medical basis.
When Mr. Jackson began his musical career, he was the “darling” of the national and international press corp. Feted for his radiantly pure vocal virtuosity, he was the planet’s most beloved child. His emotional eloquence when rendering songs far beyond his years and experience stunned audiences from the USA to Africa. His hyperkinetic energy while performing on stage and the joy he communicated lifted hearts and garnered worldwide attention when his contemporaries were still in elementary school.
Unlike many of his counterparts who lost their voices with the onset of puberty, Michael Jackson grew into an explosively-gifted adult whose recordings shattered world sales records. The Off the Wall and Thriller albums catapulted him into a class of global renown never before witnessed, releasing shockwaves in the journalistic world. Soon after that unparalleled feat, his face and name became a target for the gutter press. The original motivation behind the numerous fictions written about Michael Jackson remains a mystery but suggests many theories from racism to power struggles, to the underbelly of the music industry hidden behind the glitz and glamour.
Prurient speculation about Mr. Jackson’s sexuality led to rumors that he was homosexual. An intensely private, shy, and spiritual person, Michael Jackson seldom disclosed information about his intimate relationships, believing discretion to be the attribute of a ‘gentleman’ in such exceedingly personal matters. Although he could easily have succumbed to the practice of taking advantage of adoring fans along the tour trail; he appeared, at least publicly, to pursue a celibate lifestyle. He spent his off-stage hours distributing gifts in hospitals and orphanages in every city he visited. Easily embarrassed, he never spoke about his sexuality nor did he deny being homosexual. Michael Jackson held a great deal of affection and respect for his fans, some of whom were gay. He kept his sexual orientation undisclosed to avoid alienating any of them.
An early fiction circulated in the tabloid press had Mr. Jackson taking female hormones to sustain the soaring vocals which permeated his recordings. Mr. Jackson recounted an incident in which a young fan asked him if it was true. He denied the rumor during the brief encounter. Stunned by the question, he did not volunteer that his four-octave range had been honed to a razor-sharp edge by more than thirty years in the music business, countless sessions with a vocal coach, and constant practice. The vocal apparatus is like any muscle; it responds to frequent exercise with strength and flexibility.
An exclusive report that Mr. Jackson slept in an oxygen chamber instead of a bed gained worldwide attention. The story originated when Mr. Jackson was seriously injured during the filming of a T.V. commercial. At the director’s suggestion, he waited at the top of a flight of stairs while pyrotechnics were exploded. A spark from one of those explosions landed in his hair, igniting it. Second and third degree burns to his scalp left him essentially bald at the age of twenty six.
Reconstructive surgery and multiple skin grafts were required to repair the burn damage. His consequent empathy for burn victims impelled him to donate the hyperbaric chamber along with the rest of his $1.5 million settlement to the Brotman Medical Center in Culver City to build and equip the Michael Jackson Burn Center. Tabloid media printed photographs of Mr. Jackson “hammering around” in the chamber along with the tale that he slept in it because he was afraid to grow old—on front pages around the world. Coupled with increasingly intrusive speculation about his sexuality and female hormones to maintain his high voice, the myths became progressively more and more sensational to sell more magazines.
Several papers claimed Mr. Jackson had built a shrine to Elizabeth Taylor in his bedroom. Mr. Jackson and Ms. Taylor’s shared child-star history was a firm foundation for their lasting and close friendship. He did have a tapestry made as a gift to his friend, but his bedroom, in fact his whole estate and his entire life were a shrine to reclaiming his, and the world’s, lost and long-forgotten innocence.
In the late nineteen eighties, a breaking story circulated that Michael Jackson was attempting to acquire The Elephant Man’s bones. John Merrick, a victim of a disfiguring disease causing facial tumors, was forced to make his living as a circus sideshow and ‘freak.’ A voracious reader, Mr. Jackson had been deeply moved by the story. He denied an interest in acquiring Merrick’s bones to Oprah Winfrey in 1993. “Where would I put some bones?” he asked with an incredulous chuckle.
The tabloid press displayed a dramatic and pervasive interest in Mr. Jackson’s multi-million dollar estate in Santa Barbara County. Jackson built a ranch with full scale amusement park rides, a live animal zoo, theater, and trains. He loved theme parks, but his worldwide fame made outings impossible. Mobbed by fans and paparazzi wherever he went, his spontaneous, unplanned appearance at an amusement park presented danger for himself and others. Mr. Jackson built his own miniature fun city to amuse himself and to share with sick and underprivileged children, calling it Neverland Valley Ranch in honor of his favorite children’s story Peter Pan. He identified strongly with the character in Mr. Barry’s story, having lost his own childhood performing in clubs, recording studios, TV shows, and concerts.
Tongue-in-cheek articles trumpeted the strangeness of Mr. Jackson and his Neverland Valley Ranch. He explained to the press that he put all the things he loved behind the gates of his multi-acre home to allow himself at least a taste of the freedom and normalcy that most of us take for granted. He happily shared his creation with children from inner cities and hospitals for regularly-scheduled field days of fun and adventure whether he was physically present or not.
People flocked to Michael Jackson like paperclips to a magnet, including fans of all ages who found him enchanting and children who recognized the child in him and found him fun to be around. Mr. Jackson was so popular and beloved that he was assailed by autograph-seekers, snapshot requests, and demands for hugs with which he often happily complied. While one or two or even ten individuals did not present problems, hundreds or even thousands of frenzied people rushing towards him quickly escalated into hand-to-hand combat. Mr. Jackson was forced to climb chain link fences or the rooftops of vehicles many times to avoid being crushed in the melees that accompanied his movements.
A polite and enlightened society usually frowns upon judging individuals by appearance; this etiquette was never granted to Michael Jackson. Frequently highlighted in the media, the change in Michael Jackson’s appearance occasioned the use of derogatory comments and belittling adjectives seldom used to describe any other person. Scandal sheets attributed the alterations to an unhealthy obsession for cosmetic surgical procedures. Over a period of several years, Mr. Jackson’s face had narrowed, making his cheekbones appear more prominent, his eyes bigger and his jaw squarer. His nose changed from a typically ethnic feature to a more sharply-defined shape, and his skin became paler. A humiliating case of acne prompted Mr. Jackson to change his diet and become a vegetarian. A strict vegetarian regimen markedly redistributes muscle mass, resulting in a re-molding of body shape and increased energy level. Other than two nose jobs, which Mr. Jackson acknowledged, he denied further face-sculpting surgeries to the end of his life.
He did, however, openly admit to several reconstructive surgical procedures and skin grafts to repair damage to his scalp from the serious burn injury mentioned previously. The goal was to remove scorched tissue in the hopes of reinstating hair growth. A balloon inserted under the flesh was inflated gradually over a period of months to stretch the damaged skin prior to excising and transplanting. Healthy skin was stitched over the injured area with a graft and allowed to heal before repeating the procedure. Stretching and pulling the skin at the back of the head can have the appearance of multiple cosmetic surgeries. It would have been an extremely lengthy, painful method of performing a facelift.
Tabloids hired facial surgeons who had never treated Mr. Jackson as a patient, but who offered expert diagnoses, comparing before and after photographs to create more copy for the tabloids. Akin to asking psychologists to give expert analyses about the mental health of a person to whom they have never spoken, another common occurrence in the life of Mr. Jackson, such opinions are as questionable as the papers printing them. A youthful, round-faced Michael Jackson prior to adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, the catastrophic burn injury, and resulting reconstructive surgeries was compared with poorly lit photographs featuring camera angles calculated to emphasize a hollow-cheeked, square-jawed, slimmer-nosed appearance. Media considered such proof conclusive evidence of surgical tampering though those opinions are easily deconstructed and discounted. Affectionately known as “Angelface” in Europe and Asia, to millions Michael Jackson remained beautiful until the day he died despite concentrated efforts to convince them that he was a bizarre-looking, other-worldly freak - not quite human.
The ever-increasing pallor of Mr. Jackson’s skin was seized upon as evidence of his suspected attempt to become white and abandon his African American heritage. News anchors and journalists castigated Mr. Jackson for erasing his beautiful mocha shade by skin bleaching. Finally, in 1993, after being skewered by the press for nearly a decade about a skin condition over which he had no control, Mr. Jackson confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he was a victim of a skin disorder. Mr. Jackson’s illness, Vitiligo, is a medical condition in which the chemical responsible for skin pigmentation and protection from the harmful effects of the sun slowly disappears leaving de-pigmented - not bleached - patches of increasing size and paleness. It is deeply disfiguring, especially in an African American or dark-skinned host. Michael Jackson, one of the most visible human beings in the world, was in effect becoming an Albino on the world’s stage. A handicap which should have aroused sympathy for a man who made his living in the spotlight and who could not control an illness that left his skin dangerously exposed to UV radiation while changing his color, was instead turned into a laughing matter by the media, including providing years of comedy material for late night talk show monologues.
In advanced cases, Vitiligo affects the entire body. Mr. Jackson’s make-up artist of 30-plus years attempted to cover the de-pigmented areas with dark make-up blending into Mr. Jackson’s natural mocha shade in its early stages. As the disease progressed, this solution became impractical; medical advice deemed it more prudent to de-pigment the remaining dark patches to blend with Mr. Jackson’s overall lighter (i.e. already de-pigmented) skin. The disease also required that he cover his skin at all times during daylight hours, even on cloudy days, with hats, masks, sunglasses, high UV factor make-up, long sleeves, and umbrellas in order to avoid contracting skin cancer. The press deemed him “weird,” “strange,” or a “germophobe” for exercising caution and following medical advice to protect his health from deteriorating further.
Common sense explanations were never explored when the press spotlighted Michael Jackson; only the sensational sells in that genre. The media openly accused him of lying about his facial characteristics and skin condition.
Later in 1993, Mr. Jackson’s skin condition became useful in supporting the outlandish media creation. The tabloid press, diametrically opposing its former position suddenly found his claims credible when the coloring of his genitals became important in proving his innocence regarding accusations about his interactions with a child. They literally drooled over the acquisition of the photographs of Mr. Jackson’s groin taken during a forced police examination. The going rate for the pictures was reported to be $3 million.
Another media effort launched to persuade the public that Michael Jackson had proclaimed himself the ‘King of Pop’ and had demanded exclusive performing rights at President Clinton’s Inaugural Gala was aimed at painting Mr. Jackson as a megalomaniacal, spoiled brat overly enamored with his own importance. Numerous interviews and the documentary of his last musical venture, This Is It, dispel that myth and tell quite a different story. In them we meet a quiet, soft-spoken, polite, egoless, gentle man couching his requests in language intended to avoid bruising egos, coaching his collaborators to allow their talents to ‘shine,’ and embracing everyone who entered his personal space.
Public perception of Michael Jackson was significantly colored by the sheer scale, magnitude, and pervasiveness of the myths that spiral from fairly harmless, inane fantasies to increasingly misleading and harmful descriptions of a persona which bears no resemblance to accounts by those who knew Mr. Jackson personally. The misinformation may have even become a killing weapon by eroding and chipping away at a sensitive soul - an unequaled artist, humanitarian, and activist who possessed the ability to poignantly draw attention to the planetary and human condition and lobby for and mobilize agents of change. That Mr. Jackson possessed that ability and desire was proven more than once by the milestones of his life.
Through decades of sustained scrutiny upon a man who bore no resemblance to the manufactured and sensationalized version, the media defined a creature instead of a man; they drew a cartoon labeling it publicly “Wacko Jacko” and other derogations. This continuous and escalating psychological assault masquerading as journalism is reminiscent of schoolyard bullying. Few could have borne the repeated blows with equal grace and dignity; the fact that Michael Jackson endured them for decades is a testament to his strength and surety of purpose. Because of the relentless nature of the featured stories, much of the world envisions the tabloid version when the name Michael Jackson is mentioned. Despite the fact that it is a total fabrication, a fiction, a corrupt fairy tale that leaves one searching for any socially redeeming value, it endures. “If you hear a lie often enough, you start to believe it,” said Mr. Jackson who wondered, along with his admirers, why this cartoon was created by men and women who seemed to have abandoned the standards of truth, human decency, and ethics that once characterized a lofty and respected profession.
The historical picture painted of Mr. Jackson made it easy to doubt his integrity when the story broke in late 1993 that a child had accused Mr. Jackson of molestation. Most people did not immediately think that a beloved entertainer was the target of a shakedown; most of the world gasped and remembered all the fictions they’d read, shrugged their shoulders, and prepared to believe the worst. It was effortless because of all the previous associations and opinions based on tabloid biography. The news industry exploited Michael Jackson, making lots of money in increased circulation while convincing the public that he was some kind of oddity of nature.
Dehumanizing someone over time to make him easy prey for a malicious agenda is an old trick. It works well for ethnic cleansing and allowed the likes of Adolph Hitler to rid Germany of six million of its citizens. The fact that this type of public attack continues right here and now in modern culture should alarm every citizen of these United States, and for that matter, the world.
Rag journalists, by their own admission, delight in taking the tiniest whisper and splashing it in headlines four inches tall in order to be the first with the juiciest scoop. (See Tabloid Truth: The Michael Jackson Scandal a Frontline Special broadcast by PBS on February 15, 1994) For thirteen months Michael Jackson made headlines and money for the yellow press. The practice of milking and dramatizing stories to make them sensational to appeal to the lowest common denominator even leaked over into the mainstream press, once considered honorable. It became infected with the same frenzied hysteria as its tabloid colleagues causing some to dub this unrestrained monster medialoid. Unlike the tabloids which made no secret of their offers to pay large sums to anyone who would go on record making false statements for hire, respected journalists, broadcasters and newspapers still refused to pay their sources. However, they ignored the caution and professional ethics that once precluded them from quoting tabloids; they proffered the libelous material boldly quoting the questionable sources without apology. The common practice of investigating and verifying facts and sources was suspended indefinitely despite its current inclusion in the journalist’s code of ethics.
Nameless “reliable sources,” including security guards, maids, and housekeepers who were for sale at the right price or disgruntled employees who were asked to leave came forward to add to the tabloid tales. They were complicit in assisting to convict Michael Jackson in the court of public opinion. Tabloid editors were filmed and recorded saying: “it doesn’t matter if it’s true as long as we can get someone to say it’s true“ and “we practice a form of checkbook journalism, but so does everyone else in this business.”
Counter claims brought by Mr. Jackson for theft and extortion against these tell all sources were upheld in court judgments ordering the former employees to make restitution. Those who were fired for stealing items from Mr. Jackson’s home were fined thousands and required to pay his counterclaim legal fees. That didn’t mitigate damage done to his reputation. Words, once released into the public domain, cannot be retrieved. Injury inflicted by the willful printing of lies garnered by paying huge sums to the greedy and opportunistic cannot be estimated, nor can it be rescinded. Michael Jackson, reportedly a gentle and sensitive person, who sincerely believed that the “beauty, the innocence, the wonder of a child’s heart are the seeds of creativity that will heal the world” (Michael Jackson, Grammy Legend Award presentation, 1993) suffered mightily over the years at the hands of the unscrupulous.
The media censored any news that supported Mr. Jackson’s claims of extortion by those leveling molestation charges; court judgments in favor of Mr. Jackson were suppressed. Information that was deliberately withheld includes but is not limited to: the accuser’s father’s previous efforts at procuring financial backing from Mr. Jackson for a home remodel and movie deal, drugging a minor child, a tape recording that supports Mr. Jackson’s extortion claims, and the fact that Mr. Jackson’s insurance company settled over his objections. (Was Michael Jackson Framed by Mary Fischer, GQ, October 1994) A later book, Redemption, written by paralegal Geraldine Hughes who worked for the lawyer retained by the accuser’s father, exposed activities in her office that indicate Michael Jackson was framed. Yet again, these revelations were ignored by the press and never reported.
In early 2003, an English journalist who made his mark by interviewing Princess Diana sought out Michael Jackson for an exclusive interview. Martin Bashir vowed to present a fair, sane and real portrait of Michael Jackson, the man, in “Living with Michael Jackson.” Asking only honest and ethical treatment, Mr. Jackson gave Bashir unrestricted access to his life, including his children. Instead of a fair and unbiased portrayal, Bashir cut and pasted together a tabloid expose` complete with edited footage and voice-over narrative. Michael Jackson, ever the enthusiastic camera and film buff, had taped the interview for his personal use and his cameraman captured a far different portrayal when unedited. Mr. Jackson’s actual film was later made a documentary to refute the, once again, unfair and dishonestly manipulated caricature portrait of Michael Jackson. It was later learned that Bashir had been sanctioned in the U.K. for unethical practices. Far from being sanctioned in the United States for his slanted and sensationalized tabloid piece, Bashir was offered and accepted a position on Nightline with ABC News.
When Michael Jackson met the youth who would later accuse him, the boy had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a few weeks to live. His dying wish was to meet Michael Jackson. Mr. Jackson called the child nightly from wherever he was in the world to tell him that he would not allow him to give up, encouraging him to take his chemo and visualize it eating up all the cancer cells like Pac-Man, and hang tough so that he could be his guest at Neverland Valley Ranch. The boy survived the chemo; he and his family were given free access to Mr. Jackson’s estate while he recovered his strength in what his doctors later dubbed a miraculous recovery. Bashir’s documentary revealed Mr. Jackson’s ministrations to the boy. Rather than portraying the relationship as a tender and inspiring story of survival, Bashir’s edits and voiced-over comments strongly implied sinister motivation on the part of Mr. Jackson. The boy’s mother consulted a lawyer after the broadcast complaining that Bashir had filmed her minor son without her knowledge or consent. The lawyer she consulted just happened to be the same one who had negotiated the settlement in the previously successful extortion attempt. The lawyer consulted the same psychologist and the same prosecutor nicknamed ‘Mad-Dog’ by his peers, whose personal dislike of Mr. Jackson was long-standing and well-known. Two grand juries had refused to allow him to bring criminal charges ten years earlier citing lack of evidence, which likely added fuel to his decade-long pursuit of Jackson; the goal was to bring Mr. Michael Jackson down hard.
Tom Sneddon, the DA in Santa Barbara County, although failing to procure indictments against Mr. Jackson on charges of child molestation in 1993, continued an open investigation during the ensuing ten years. He had followed Jackson all over the globe at taxpayer’s expense, trying to find a child to speak against Mr. Jackson; he found none. He had also activated a website soliciting evidence against Mr. Jackson so that he could prosecute citing that he was “the law” in Santa Barbara County. His single-minded purpose was called obsessive by many legal commentators.
After interviewing the young cancer survivor, Sneddon invaded Mr. Jackson’s home going through the entire compound and Jackson’s private quarters with 70 deputies. Videotape of the interview clearly shows law enforcement officers leading the boy. They appeared to have already judged Mr. Jackson guilty without benefit of legal process; the wording of the questions left little doubt of bias. The ranch was raided a total of three times. During a televised press conference, Sneddon openly mocked Mr. Jackson, to the amusement of the gathered press corps, showing disrespect for the man and the law by trivializing very serious charges. Once again, Mr. Jackson faced accusations of molesting a child, coercing the child with liquor, and conspiracy. This time, Sneddon succeeded in bringing his case to a jury and the ‘trial of the century’ played out in the small community of Santa Maria, California and in the tabloid and medialoid headlines.
The press conference exhibits gleefulness by Sneddon that betrays a personal vendetta but most media outlets ignored the critical commentary that followed. The trial itself and its coverage put to rest any distinction between media and tabloid journalism; Walter Cronkite style journalism appeared extinct. Throughout the long five month trial, the media focused on “dancing on vehicle roofs” and “pajama pants.” Standing on car roofs was a familiar gesture employed by Mr. Jackson often to avoid being trampled by fans and paparazzi as well as to wave and allow supporters and admirers to see him above the crowd. Bearing in mind that during the five months of the trial, those fans and his family constituted his only support, his acknowledgement is understandable. The notorious pajama incident was instigated by Mr. Jackson’s lead attorney who ordered his client to race back from a hospital visit to be in court on time because the judge would not allow extra time. Humorous anecdotes about the pajama appearance abounded. What relevance such anecdotes had on the legal proceedings was never fully explained.
Exculpatory facts relevant to The State of California vs. Michael Joseph Jackson were suppressed. A prior settlement from J.C. Penney for an alleged sexual assault on the mother when Penney’s security personnel followed her into the parking lot to detain her son for shoplifting was not given coverage. The children including Mr. Jackson’s accuser who corroborated her story, later admitted lying under oath; their admission was similarly ignored. Welfare fraud on the part of the mother of the accuser was later prosecuted. Accusations of detention by Jackson’s people were dismissed when the family’s trips in and out of the compound to go shopping and for full body waxes and dental visits courtesy of Mr. Jackson’s expense account were exposed. Evidence was entered thoroughly discrediting testimony from security guards and maids from a previous incident that included orders for restitution to Mr. Jackson. The mother’s tenuous hold on reality impeached the prosecution’s case, another fact that never found its way into the press coverage. Outrage and scathing testimony from previously-named alleged victims categorically denying any harm at the hands of Michael Jackson were disregarded. Both versions of the documentary were entered into evidence - Living with Michael Jackson and the rebuttal film Living with Michael Jackson: Take Two. The rebuttal weighed heavily in the jury’s decision to acquit Mr. Jackson.
A mainstream reporter considered a Jackson insider and expert has said about the intentional oversights with regard to Jackson:
This was not the first time I'd had a Jackson story suppressed. After Evan Chandler's suicide in November 2009 I was contacted by the Sun and asked to supply information about the 1993 allegations. I spent quite some time compiling my research, advising the newspaper of common myths and how to avoid them, being careful to source all of my facts from legal documents and audio/visual evidence.
When I read the finished article I was stunned to find that all of my information had been discarded and replaced with the very myths I had advised them to avoid. I alerted staff to the inaccuracies but my emails were not replied. The same inaccuracies appeared in every single article I read about the suicide.
The same bias manifested itself the following month when Jackson's FBI file was released. Across more than 300 pages of information there was not one piece of incriminating evidence -- but that's not the way the media told it. –Charles Thomson in The Huffington Post
The events above described by Mr. Thomson occurred after Mr. Jackson’s death, yet they illustrate that impartial, conscientious reporters may wish to report the truth, but editors and executives rewrite their stories to suit their own agendas or to follow precedence.
Aphrodite Jones, best-selling true-crime biographer and author of a library of criminal trials, tells a similar story of bias at the upper levels of the publishing world. A self-described once-rabid tabloid reporter, she met quite a different Michael Jackson at his trial from the one that was being consistently portrayed by her colleagues. Stunned by the discrepancies she witnessed between published accounts and the events transpiring in the courtroom, she decided to look into the transcripts and evidence herself and write a book based on the facts of the case. No editor was interested in a book about Mr. Jackson’s exoneration; forced to self publish, her account of media bias against Michael Jackson can be found in Michael Jackson Conspiracy.
Ms. Jones, after rethinking her tabloid-influenced view, became impressed with the demeanor of Michael Jackson. She saw no weird behavior or appearance as she sat in the press area during the trial. She describes a quiet, regally-attired, dignified man stoically bearing explicit mockery by media representatives inside the courtroom, unconcealed malignancy by witnesses and prosecution, and insidious ridicule by media hordes outside the courthouse. Remorseful that she had played a part in constructing the caricature and in damaging Mr. Jackson, Ms. Jones felt that the American public deserved the truth. Without her conscience and recognition of her complicity, her diligence and compassion for the battered and beleaguered defendant, and her sense of fair play in journalism, the public would still be unaware of the factors that contributed to the across-the-board ‘not guilty’ verdict of the jury in Santa Maria. Tom Mesereau, lead defense attorney, contributed the Foreword to Michael Jackson Conspiracy.
A serious legal proceeding that placed a man’s life, work, and reputation in jeopardy devolved into a circus. The trial ended with fourteen ‘not guilty’ verdicts. The media hordes were stunned into silence. Instead of examining how the verdict of complete exoneration had come about and what it meant, they almost unanimously ignored the trial outcome and continued to demonize Mr. Michael Jackson with the appellations ‘pervert,’ ‘predator,’ and ‘pedophile’ for the rest of his life. No one seemed to notice that fourteen counts were dismissed; all fourteen counts! Many, including Tom Mesereau, wondered if the trial was even warranted based on the evidence and testimony presented to the jury.
The cautionary tale here is the rush to judgment on the part of the public fed by reports published by an industry whose first and only allegiance by its own admission is greed and the accumulation of profit at the expense of people, truth, justice, and the civil rights of individuals thrust into the public eye by talent, fame, or public office. Accustomed to journalism being an ethical profession, we trust that sources are investigated for possible axes to grind by our reporters and television anchor persons, that accusations are thoroughly examined for possible extortionate motives, and that what we watch and read has been scrupulously vetted and verified prior to publication. As shown in this case study, this trust is misplaced. The destruction of unique and irreplaceable human lives by media wielding “pens mightier than swords” - and cutting as deeply - is unacceptable in a democratic society.
Despite being innocent and proven not guilty in a court of law, Mr. Jackson lived another four years bearing the onus of false charges despite it being a clear violation of his civil rights. Few voices raised an objection. Even after his death, the name Michael Jackson is seldom mentioned without the crime of which he was acquitted; his full exoneration is almost universally ignored. Mr. Jackson’s right to presumption of innocence was never observed; his actual innocence is questioned even now. Every mention of the unproven allegations is yet another violation of his civil rights. The right of the American public to be given the facts and to make up its own mind was blatantly thwarted under the “freedom of the press” umbrella.
Michael Jackson’s older brother, Jermaine, regularly sitting beside Michael as he stoically endured the trial proceedings, commented that he watched the light slowly fade from his brother’s eyes during the five-month ordeal. In an interview conducted after Mr. Jackson’s death, Tom Mesereau observed that the damage done to Michael Jackson’s spirit by the interminable days of the trial could not be estimated, but was, from his perspective “probably very great.” Michael Jackson was a global philanthropist and humanitarian who keenly felt injustice to others; he felt the world’s prejudice against him just as acutely. He is considered by many to be the greatest entertainer who ever lived. His contributions to social and ecological awareness and the fields of music and film are legion. He is an iconic figure woven into the tapestry of the twentieth century. But do we know the whole story?
What we can take away from this case study is: very powerful editors and broadcast network executives decide what we, the public, are going to read and watch. Their reports on the subject of Michael Jackson, specifically, pivoted for much of his life on ridicule, accusation, and character assassination instead of accurate information. Our highly-vaunted democratic process is held in the steel grip of media. How exactly are we to know the truth? And how much truth are we allowed to know on subjects of arguably more political and social relevance? Are we the consumers of a responsible media? You are the public. You decide.
Michael Jackson wrote, composed, recorded, and performed some of the most “glorious music in the pop canon” according to Sir Bob Geldoff who cited him with an award at the Brit (the equivalent of the Grammy) Awards presentation of 2000. Geldoff also said: “when Michael Jackson sings it is with the voice of angels and when he moves his feet, you can see God dancing.” The Guinness Book of World Records, in addition to his musical accomplishments, lists Mr. Michael Joseph Jackson as the ‘most charitable entertainer,’ supporting at least 39 separate and distinct charities and humanitarian efforts during his lifetime and donating in excess of $300 million in aid to multiple hospitals, the impoverished, ill children in every country he visited, and air-lifting supplies to war-torn Sarajevo. During his fifteen-year tenure, he opened his home to thousands of lives devastated by darkness, disease, disadvantage, or gang violence. He lent his voice and his songwriting talents to worthy causes, the most famous, but not the only, example being the We Are the World song and recording session. His musical contributions (whether recordings, short films, or live performances) abound with messages of hope, healing, unity, and planetary stewardship. In the words of Travis Payne, choreographer and contributor to the stillborn This Is It concert, his music “always spoke to humanity.” Michael Jackson was, and remains, “a global cheerleader” reminding us of who we are and the power we hold to heal the world.
A living example of following your dreams and not letting anyone turn you from your goal, many millions the world over heard and adopted his messages. Michael Jackson’s resolute strength and courage in the face of hardship inspires countless others facing obstacles in their own lives. He stood like a rock firmly embedded in the earth’s crust personifying love and compassion for those less fortunate even when that love was massively misunderstood and misrepresented. Mr. Jackson’s gifts to the world through hard work and an incessant allegiance to excellence comprise a worthy testament to his legacy. As shown in the documentary of his last project, he remained a humble, kind, polite, soft-spoken, gentleman even when surrounded by inconceivable wealth, fame, and the unchecked suspicion of others.
Mr. Jackson’s vocal coach of thirty years, Seth Riggs, spoke of his pupil only after Mr. Jackson’s death in 2009. Lauding his work ethic, perfectionist nature, and dedication to excellence, Mr. Riggs expressed his gratitude to have contributed to Mr. Jackson’s ‘genius.’ As a matter of fact, no one who knew or worked with Michael Jackson, whether in a recording studio, concert rehearsal, film set or humanitarian effort had a negative word to say about their encounter. All commended his humility, professionalism, awareness, intelligence, talent, gentleness, gallantry, and “generosity to almost a fault … of himself,” as his friend Dame Elizabeth Taylor told Oprah in 1993. Mr. Jackson was described by colleagues and intimates as “an angel walking the planet,” “a gentle spirit,” “a lovely soul,” “an absolute sweetheart,” “a very approachable man,” “the least weird man I have ever known,” and “the sweetest person I have ever met in my life.” Those words from those who knew him best contrast sharply with the caricature portrait by the media who knew him not at all. Yet sadly, that is not what most of the world remembers.
This is not just a case of violence and words; it is a case of relentless, all-pervasive violence and words. That assault over a lifetime, but particularly over the last ten years of his life, likely caused post-traumatic stress and the sleeplessness which ultimately led to Michael Jackson’s untimely death. Media intrusion and a total lack of respect for truth and decency played a large part in the destruction of a reputation, a career and a life. That coupled with a law enforcement official who ignored protocol and justice while harboring bigotry and personal vendetta and the careless actions of a physician administering a drug outside of his expertise in conditions not conducive to the patient’s survival made Michael Jackson’s death a question of when, not if. All involved are culpable.
What lessons can we learn from the example of Michael Jackson’s life?
As consumers, we can and must learn that “just because you read it in a magazine or see it on a TV screen don’t make it factual” (Michael Jackson, Tabloid Junkie, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, 1995). We are too easily led. We trust that news media are trustworthy and practicing a minimal code of ethics. They are not. First and foremost, we need to be aware of the changes that have occurred in reporting the news.
We, as the ultimate consumers of their product, must educate our journalists regarding what we will and will not tolerate in their profession. Although he was not the first of our brightest and best to be literally hounded to death, let’s make Michael Jackson the last whose life we sacrifice to greed. By not buying garbage news, we wield the power to eliminate the choke hold on our airwaves, horizon and psyche. We can starve the monster. Should we consider it?
If we see unfairness or unethical practices in our television news or newspapers, we have a right as well as a responsibility to call our editors and broadcasters to task. Who loses when consumers bury their heads in the sand and ignore the elephant in the room? Democracy, it has been said, is not a spectator sport.
Should we use intelligence and the power to discern when making choices about what we buy and read? What we choose to believe? What about the role of critical thinking?
Some minimal standards in the profession of journalism based on human decency and truth in the market place should be legislated. All freedoms bear responsibilities. Freedom of the press is no exception.
Law enforcement officials have a responsibility to remain impartial. Personal biases, vendettas and strong dislikes have no place in the enforcement of the law. Mockery of suspects is serious and unprofessional.
Our national media must be reminded of its purpose. While magazines are in business to entertain and tabloids are in business to make money, our respected mainstream media does not share either of their goals. Our national media’s purpose is, and always has been, to inform! Should they be held to this task and standards?
How can we, as consumers, change the way our media covers celebrity?
How can laws be constructed assist in the control of media bias?
How can newspaper and broadcast media be held to a minimum code of ethics as doctors and lawyers are?
What can be done to improve the Shield Law that protects journalists from being accountable for their actions in wielding their pens as weapons of destruction?
How has the advent of the ‘information superhighway’ impacted the journalistic profession?
How has the 24 hour news cycle impacted television?
Given this account of media bias, inaccuracies and failure to report the facts: how do you feel as a consumer? Are you surprised? Outraged? Or unaffected?
If you could change anything about this story, what would it be? If you had the power to request a change from the media, what would you say?
If you were the target or subject of such storytelling, how would you feel? What would you do?
If you agree with the media using these tactics, why do you agree? If you disagree, why? And what do you think can be done about it?
Was Michael Jackson Framed - GQ - October 1993 - Mary Fisher (listed in the body of the text)
Michael Jackson Conspiracy - Aphrodite Jones - (listed in the body of the text)
The Huffington Post - Charles Thomson (quoted in the body of the text)
Interview with David Nordahl, USA Today - 8/20/09
Oprah Winfrey - Ninety Prime Time Minutes with the King of Pop - 1993
Case Study written by Jan Carlson:
Jan is a lifelong observer of the media and its manipulation of public opinion. A resident of the midwestern United States, she is a grandmother, wife and full-time employee. A student of music and its relationship to human emotion, Jan is an avid reader of philosophy, history, mythology and ancient cultures.