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Why Jacko’s not boffo
The ‘Trial of the Century’ is a long way from the O.J. extravaganza. Why? No live TV, too much weirdness, and — just possibly — a changed public attitude toward celebrity culture.

IF YOU’VE BEEN lying awake at night, wondering why Michael Jackson recently showed up for his child-molestation trial late, zonked out, and wearing pajama bottoms, this week’s National Enquirer has exactly what you’ve been looking for. In an "exclusive" headlined REAL REASON FOR MICHAEL’S CRAZINESS, the celebrity-obsessed tabloid reports that the one-time King of Pop has been injecting himself with Demerol, a powerful prescription painkiller. "There have been times when Michael was so medicated when he came to court that he could barely understand what was going on around him," a "Jackson family source" is quoted as saying. The source adds that the singer’s family worries that he may overdose; that he’s lost weight and is severely depressed; and that people close to him are "terrified" he may commit suicide if he’s found guilty.

As scandalmongering goes, this is pretty good stuff — even by the exceedingly strange standards of Michael Jackson, who’s been a gossip-column headliner for some two decades now because of his botched plastic surgery, his ghostly white complexion, his two sham marriages, and — always — his attachment to boys on the cusp of adolescence. Yet the Demerol story rates nothing more than a tiny tease on the Enquirer’s front page, sharing space with the paper’s UPC bar code. Jessica Simpson, Demi Moore, Tom Hanks, even faded screen siren (see how easy this is?) Sharon Stone all rate better play than the 46-year-old former superstar.

Jackson’s demotion to the second circle of celebrity hell is by no means restricted to the Enquirer. His trial on charges of child molestation and kidnapping had been billed as the "Trial of the Century." Well, the century is still young, isn’t it? Last week, trial-and-crime mavens such as Greta Van Susteren and Nancy Grace had more-important matters to chew over: the acquittal of Robert Blake; the murder of nine-year-old Jessica Lunsford; the death sentence imposed on Scott Peterson; and the Atlanta courtroom shootings. And if Jackson can’t compete even with an old geezer like Blake, it goes without saying that his trial pales in comparison with the celebrity trial of the last century: that of O.J. Simpson, whose months-long televised courtroom drama became a national obsession, and remains the standard by which all other celebrity trials are measured.

"The Simpson case had everything — sex, race, violence, Hollywood, sports, and the only eyewitness was a dog. The confluence of events in Simpson created a perfect media storm. And I don’t think that’s ever going to be replicated," says New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin, who is the legal analyst for CNN and the author of The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson.

Even so, Michael Jackson’s face — make that faces — is still among the best known in the world. He remains enormously popular internationally, and has retained most of his notoriety, if nothing else, at home. O.J. Simpson was a washed-up football star who did Hertz commercials and appeared in a string of bad movies. Why the difference?

"O.J. had a lot more sub-themes to it," says David Perel, editor-in-chief of the Enquirer, who supervised his paper’s Simpson coverage. "There was the issue of whether there was police misconduct involved. There was a racial component to it. There were just so many subplots and characters.... Nicole [Simpson] obviously was a very sympathetic victim. You knew something happened, and then it became a whodunit." In that light, he says, the Jackson trial "just doesn’t compare on any level."

No doubt Perel feels nostalgic for the Simpson trial, an event that marked the Enquirer’s rise out of the tabloid muck into something approaching — well, not respectability, but a certain kind of credibility. The paper’s O.J. reporting — enhanced by its practice of paying sources, something that’s considered unethical by mainstream news organizations — was so accurate that its coverage was hailed by no less than the New York Times. Still, Perel is trying to do with Jackson what he can. He is, with Suzanne Ely, the co-author of Freak! Inside the Twisted World of Michael Jackson (HarperEntertainment), recently updated with details about the trial. (Here’s an excerpt concerning the 1993 child-molestation investigation: "But there were also other reports that Michael had a tattoo on or near his genitals of none other than Winnie the Pooh. But the existence of that tattoo was never confirmed." Yuck.)

"We’ll keep after it, because there’s some big stories there," says Perel. "If he’s found guilty, I think it becomes a bigger story, and I think the controversy level goes way up."

And if Jackson is acquitted — well, Jessica Simpson’s bound to be up to something.

BY FAR the biggest difference between the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials is the simple fact that Simpson’s was on live television. Lawyers such as prosecutor Marcia Clark and defense attorney Johnnie Cochran became stars. Others, such as the hapless judge, Lance Ito, and the race-baiting cop, Mark Fuhrman, were cast as buffoons or villains. In the Jackson trial, by contrast, Judge Rodney Melville has banned cameras from the courtroom and imposed a partial gag order on trial participants. That leaves few crumbs for the media to pick over.

But if the absence of cameras has left a void, it has also created an opportunity. With a concept that is simultaneously as weird as Jackson’s morphing nose, yet as straightforward as C-SPAN, the E! Entertainment cable channel has been broadcasting re-enactments of highlights from each day’s session. Actors in a faux courtroom parrot excerpts from that day’s transcripts, with an all-star panel of lawyers providing commentary. Edward Moss, a professional Michael Jackson impersonator, was recently profiled in the New York Times — and he won’t even get a chance to do anything but fidget at the defense table unless the real Jackson takes the witness stand, which is by no means a sure thing.

The re-enactments have proved popular. Last week they were moved from 7:30 to 9 p.m. and expanded from a half-hour to an hour. According to the New York Post, about 500,000 people watch every night, a respectable if unspectacular number. (By way of comparison, about one million viewers watch Fox News’s Special Report with Brit Hume, and nearly 30 million watch one of the three major network newscasts.) Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, pronounces the re-enactments inspired. "I think as theater it’s brilliant," he says. "If an Off-Broadway company had done this, my guess is that we’d hail this as a fascinating experimental departure for the theater."

What makes the re-enactments so compelling is that E! plays them absolutely straight. The host, James Curtis, is a former prosecutor. The three lawyer-commentators are no slouches, either: Rikki Klieman, the former Boston lawyer and ex–Court TV anchor who’s married to Los Angeles police chief (and former Boston and New York police commissioner) Bill Bratton; Howard Weitzman, a high-powered defense lawyer involved in helping Jackson fend off child-molestation charges a dozen years ago; and Shawn Chapman Holley, a member of Johnnie Cochran’s firm and part of O.J. Simpson’s defense team.

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Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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