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Why Jackoís not boffo (continued)

Related links

The Michael Jackson trial

The online home of E! Entertainmentís nightly re-enactments of that dayís court sessions. With streaming video clips, bios of the lawyers and actors, and a chance to vote on whether Jackson is guilty or not.

Michael Jackson Fan Club

An alternate universe in which the singer would never hurt a child. Enter at your own risk.

Freak! Inside the Twisted World of Michael Jackson

Written by National Enquirer editor in chief David Perel and Suzanne Ely, this quick read is a down-and-dirty guide to four decades of dysfunction.

Inside the Jackson grand jury

From the Smoking Gun, more than you want to know. Do not read on a full stomach.

Finding Neverland

Once upon a time there was a musical genius named Michael Jackson. Really. Jody Rosen reviews Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection for the Nation.

Klieman goes so far as to say that the re-enactments help educate viewers about the legal system ó which is true, although viewers perhaps find the show especially educational on a day like last Wednesday, when the lawyers discussed the physiological improbability of the alleged victimís claim that Jackson had once masturbated him to the point of ejaculation five times in one day.

Klieman told me that although she and the other lawyers donít actually attend trial, they do read all the transcripts, which puts them in a better position to analyze whatís going on than is sometimes the case on cable-TV talk shows ó where, she says, itís not unusual to be handed "a three-paragraph wire story" and be asked to deliver some instant commentary. Klieman ó whoís also playing a lawyer on NBCís Las Vegas ó has been tilting toward the prosecution in her E! analysis to balance the pro-defense leanings of Holley and Weitzman. But her take on the trial to date is similar to that of most observers: the case against Jackson appears to be surprisingly weak, with serious questions about the credibility of the alleged victim and his family.

Nor is Klieman under any illusions about the appeal of the Jackson case compared to the Simpson trial, which helped put her ó and so many other lawyers, analysts, and commentators ó in the public spotlight in the first place. "We have to remember that, during Simpson, not only did a lot of people watch it all day, but they taped it all day and watched it all night.... O.J. was a whodunit ó did O.J. do it or did someone else do it? This is, did he do it or not? Thereís no other person involved, thereís no other possible defendant involved."

AND THEREíS the whole matter of the it to which Klieman refers. The O.J. case was about a crime of passion. Simpson was charged with murdering his ex-wife and a friend of hers, Ron Goldman. It was a horrible act, but recognizably human. The charges against Michael Jackson are the sort that make you want to turn your head, grab your stomach, and change the channel. If Jackson is guilty ó if he did indeed get a 13-year-old cancer patient drunk on "Jesus juice," show him pornography, and engage in masturbation with him ó well, who really wants to know that? The behavior of which Jackson stands accused is so repulsive and exploitative that you canít help but feel like a co-conspirator to perversion just by watching E! or reading Freak!

Consider Kristin McGrath, a 36-year-old professional who confesses to having watched huge chunks of the Simpson trial, and to having followed the Scott Peterson case closely as well. By contrast, she wants nothing to do with Jackson. "The whole Michael Jackson thing, itís just gross. It has nothing to with real life," she says. "I really donít want to know the details because I just find the thing so distasteful. Every time I watch it, I just get angry wondering about how this mother could put her son in this situation."

Indeed, itís Jacksonís very strangeness that may prove to be his most formidable obstacle to staying out of prison. Given the weakness of this particular case, it might not be shocking if Jackson were acquitted; but itís hard to believe that heís actually innocent. From the time he showed up at the Grammys with little Emmanuel Lewis, in 1984, it has seemed indisputable that there was something very wrong going on in Jacksonís life. In reading Freak!, you canít help but be struck by his motherís description of her son as a "faggot." If only he were a normal gay man. Instead, you read about his "special friends," the shopping trips to toy stores, the unsupervised visits to Neverland, the heavy security aimed at making sure that absolutely no one would know precisely what it was that Jackson and his friends were up to. If there really was nothing sexual going on, well, that may just be the strangest thing of all.

"The assumption that people make, incorrectly in many cases, is weirdness is a warning sign ó that people who are bizarre or weird are more likely to be sexual perverts or murderers," says criminologist Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University. "So it seems to me that every time he does a bizarre thing like wear his pajamas to court, it reinforces the idea that he is guilty. That is an assumption without evidence," adds Levin, whose most recent book ó co-authored with James Alan Fox ó is Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.

The New Yorkerís Jeffrey Toobin also warns against being taken in by Jacksonís strangeness. "His weirdness is beyond dispute," says Toobin. "But his weirdness may include a weird, obsessive fondness for children that is not sexual. Conduct like Jacksonís looks to most people like pedophilia, but it may be that with Jackson itís not pedophilia." Well, okay. Maybe. But as television news analyst Andrew Tyndall puts it, "The only question is whether heís a criminal freak or a pathetic one. No wonder nobody cares."

In fact, Tyndall ó who produces a newsletter on ratings called the Tyndall Report ó says the Jackson trialís failure to penetrate serious news coverage may be a sign that we have learned how to process celebrity scandal in a more healthy manner than used to be the case. A decade ago, Tyndall says, the evening newscasts were as heavy with Simpson-trial coverage as other media were ó and, in 1993, they treated the first round of child-molestation charges against Michael Jackson as a major story. Now, tabloid stories such as the Jackson trial are almost invisible on the evening newscasts, which, since 9/11, have returned to their traditional emphasis on hard news. Thatís not to say that there isnít plenty of Jacko on the tube, Tyndall notes, but itís confined mainly to the morning newscasts and to the cable news channels.

And if Michael Jackson isnít being taken as seriously as O.J. Simpson was, thatís a sign not just that news values have changed, but also that O.J. deserved to be taken more seriously. As Toobin observes, the Simpson trial became "a serious case about race in America." Cultural attitudes toward police misconduct, the black-white divide, even celebrity itself were at issue in the Simpson case. None of that is true with the Jackson trial, which is merely the story of a sad, aging entertainer and his obsessions, foremost among them the children whose lives he is alleged to have harmed.

Of course, this could be just a lull. The trial could pick up, Jackson could testify, the jury could do the unexpected and send him to prison until he is an old man. Then people would care quite a bit. But unlike the days of O.J., we no longer need celebrity culture to teach us about the world around us. In a time of war and terrorism, of economic uncertainty and social divisiveness, we can get all the reality we need from reality itself.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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