The man in America's mirror

Believe it or not, the Michael Jackson trial is more than a freak show. Yes, it's a celebrity-sex wallow -- but it's also a crucible for our unresolved questions about crime, fame, race and punishment.

By Farhad Manjoo
Published March 26, 2005 11:15PM (EST)

To most people, taking the Michael Jackson case seriously is a contradiction in terms. As much as Jackson is known for having once been a great performer, he is now known for being a freak. With his chimp, hyperbaric chamber, mysterious illnesses, dangling baby and, most of all, ever changing face, Jackson has become a regular player in the Bat Boy brigade of tabloid media. His trial is one of those media spectacles that stand as yet another reason to be ashamed of America, and arguing that it is some sort of social, cultural or legal landmark seems as silly as arguing that "The Wiz" marked a compelling turn in American cinema. Really, it's understandable why you'd want to look away.

But I'm here to tell you that Jackson's trial on charges of child molestation is more important than you think it is. The case presents us with a rich seam of American obsessions, a combustible cocktail of celebrity, sex, race, mass media and the administration of law and order in our society. It gives us an opportunity to understand the method to Jackson's apparent madness, to examine the ways in which he has, throughout his career, mined freakishness for its utility to him as a star. Here's a musician who hasn't recorded a great album in more than a decade and nevertheless remains, for better or worse, a cultural obsession, a national figure to be mocked or cried over, lamented or prized.

To begin with, Jackson can't be dismissed simply as a freak. Seth Clark Silberman, a professor of gay and lesbian studies at Yale University, who is a fan and a scholar of Jackson, reminds us that the performer has long engineered his own career and image. As long as Jackson's been popular, he's been weird. A better way to put it is that he's popular because he's weird, because he knows that oddness is intriguing, and that it's better that the public thinks of him as being a strange man than not think of him at all.

In a lecture that Silberman gave at a conference focused on Jackson at Yale last fall, the professor pointed to an assessment that Steven Spielberg once made of Jackson: "He's in full control," the director said. "Sometimes he appears to other people to be sort of wavering on the fringes of twilight, but there is great conscious forethought behind everything he does. He's very smart about his career and the choices he makes."

Silberman argues that even in the infamous 2003 documentary, "Living With Michael Jackson," by the British journalist Martin Bashir, Jackson played up his oddities in a (rather brilliant) attempt to keep us interested. The whole world thinks of Jackson as odd; if he'd disappointed Bashir by acting normal, nobody would have watched. So, instead, he decided to act stranger than any of us might have ever imagined. Afterward, we couldn't get him out of our heads.

In the documentary, though, Jackson's circus act backfired on him. Silberman says that while watching the scene in which Jackson is holding hands with a 12-year-old boy and proudly declares that there isn't anything wrong with sharing his bed with children, "I had to pause the TiVo and say to the TV, 'Michael, what are you doing? Why would you do this now?'" It was this scene, prosecutors say, that set in motion the current child molestation case.

The trial has been carrying on for about four weeks; we're now at the halfway point, with the prosecution just about done presenting its case for Jackson's guilt. At the center of this case are two boys, Gavin, the former cancer patient shown in the documentary, and Star, Gavin's younger brother. Gavin claims to have been molested by Jackson, and Star says he witnessed acts of molestation.

These acts are alleged to have occurred after the Bashir video was made, but both boys also testified that Jackson acted inappropriately with them before that. For instance, Jackson gave Gavin a computer on the first night that he met the boys at his Neverland Ranch in the summer of 2000, and, presumably in an effort show them that the computer was in working order, he introduced them to pornographic Web sites. "Got milk?" Jackson is said to have remarked when showing the boys a well-endowed woman who struck his fancy -- proof if ever you needed it that those commercials are evil.

Gavin, Star and their older sister, Davellin, who have all testified, say that they spent some time at Jackson's ranch in late 2000 and 2001 -- but that Jackson suddenly cut off all communication with them and they didn't talk to him for more than a year. Then, one day in 2002, Jackson called Gavin more or less out of the blue and invited him to Neverland Ranch to participate in a film -- the Bashir film.

This series of events is important; it suggests that Jackson had forgotten about these children for some time and decided to call them only when he thought they could be useful to him in a documentary. As Silberman suggests, there was some calculation to Jackson's behavior in the film. He may have been using the kids specifically to show the world that he was not going to shy away from past indiscretions and in fact that he was going to embrace, in an aggressive manner, the world's suspicions about him.

Instead of making the public think that Jackson was merely kooky, the Bashir video was deemed beyond the pale. In 1993, Jackson barely avoided a trial when another child accused him of molestation; he paid that accuser $20 million to keep the charges out of court. With the Bashir video, the public had finally had enough with Jackson's winking at molestation. The film ruined Jackson, the prosecution says, prompting him to attack the children who were featured in the video.

It was only in the weeks after the Bashir video aired, the prosecution argues, that Jackson molested Gavin. Gavin testified that he and Jackson were together in Jackson's bed when Jackson brought up the subject of masturbation. He said that Jackson told him that masturbation is natural, and that men who didn't masturbate would become "kind of unstable" -- they would try to rape women or have sex with dogs. "And so I was under his covers, and then that's when he put his hand in my pants and then he started masturbating me," Gavin testified. He said that a similar incident occurred a few days later, and that he thinks, but can't be sure, that there were more incidents as well. "In my memory, it was only twice, but I feel it was more than twice," Gavin said. "But I only remember it twice."

Star testified that on two occasions, he went up to Michael's open bedroom door and saw the pop star masturbating while fondling his brother, who was asleep or passed out on the bed beside Michael. Jackson "had his hand in his pants, and he was stroking up and down," Star said. His brother was snoring. Jackson "had his eyes closed."

Life with Jackson appears to have been an awful cross between Romper Room and the Playboy Mansion, where every gag was at once juvenile and perverse. Jackson hosted odd swearing contests in which he encouraged the kids to string together all kinds of bad words. He made crank calls to strangers, asking women how big their "p-u-s-s-y" was, Star said in court. Once, while Star and Gavin were watching a movie, Jackson walked into the room completely naked with a "hard-on," Star testified, and the brothers were "grossed out." Star also described an incident in which Jackson pretended to have sex with a mannequin he keeps in his room. "He was -- one time -- he was jerking around and he grabbed the mannequin, and he was pretending like he was having intercourse with it," Star said. "He was fully clothed. He was acting like he was humping."

The lurid details make the case easy to dismiss as tabloid fodder. But Thomas Lyon, an expert on child-abuse law at the University of Southern California Law School, believes otherwise. He argues that the high-profile trial is important precisely because it resembles many other molestation cases. "It could have a profound effect on how people see cases involving children," he says. Depending on the outcome, it may dictate "what kinds of legal actions we take against them."

Currently, there are about 90,000 cases of sexual abuse against child victims confirmed in the United States each year, and there are likely a great many more instances of abuse that go unreported to authorities. Most of these children are molested by adults they're acquainted with, many by adults who've cultivated relationships with the kids for the specific purpose of molestation. Prosecuting perpetrators in these cases is difficult: Children make bad witnesses, and children who are abused tend to be the sort of kids juries don't believe -- kids with problems in school, for example.

Lyon points out that Jackson's fame doesn't eliminate the similarities between his case and other child molestation trials. For all its apparent freakishness, he says, the Jackson trial is proceeding in just the way most child-abuse trials do. "This case can teach the public about the M.O. of the typical molester," Lyon says.

Most people believe that a typical child molester is a "violent offender who picks up kids he doesn't know" and abuses them. But that's not at all how most cases occur, Lyon says. "If these charges are true, Jackson is the classic molester in terms of how he approached his victims.

"First step is, Jackson introduces him to alcohol. Then he introduces him to pornography. Then he talks to him about how it's natural to masturbate. Then, fourth step is, he does something to the child. And then he tries to get the child to do something to him. This is classic. The molester befriends the child, he corrupts the child, and then he moves toward the sex act."

Not only did the alleged molestation in Jackson's case parallel most molestation cases, so too has the courtroom proceeding run according to a similar pattern, especially when it comes to the children's testimony.

On the stand, Gavin, Star, and their older sister Davellin have sketched a rather clear broad picture of what happened during their interactions with Jackson. But they have also been inconsistent, and sometimes unbelievable, in their details. Reading through the transcripts of the case, especially during the times that each of them was cross-examined by Tom Mesereau, Jackson's pitch-perfect defense attorney, is a frustrating exercise. You're constantly trying to believe the kids -- what they say is too terrible to dismiss -- but at the same time you're wondering if they've fooled the D.A. and half the country into believing awful things about Jackson.

Why can't they remember dates? Why can't they explain why they said one thing before and are saying another thing now? What should you make of their admissions that they've lied to juries during a previous case? Are they trying to scam Jackson?

Lyon explains that inconsistencies are standard in child abuse cases. "The media is acting surprised at how terrible the children are doing on the stand but the kids are performing exactly as predicted," he says. "They're showing inconsistencies that any witness would show, and because they're children, they're explaining their inconsistencies more poorly, which is normal." Watching this case might give the public "a better appreciation for how hard it is for prosecutors to go after these guys," Lyon says. "It raises public awareness for how difficult it is to prove child molestation."

He notes that if the defense is successful in convincing the public and the jury that the kids are lying, there's a danger that people may become more skeptical of child accusers in general. That's especially because most incidents of child abuse are more difficult to prove than the ones alleged in this case, Lyon says. "It's true that in most cases you don't have the money motive," he says, referring to Jackson's defense team's theory that the family accusing the entertainer only wants money from him. "Yet in most normal child abuse cases you don't have this much evidence. You don't have an eyewitness. You don't have possible previous victims. You don't have the alleged molester acknowledging on tape that he sleeps with boys in his bed." If people don't believe the accusers in this case, they may not believe the accusers in most other cases, either.

Because Jackson is a wealthy superstar, there are certainly some major differences between this case and most child molestation cases. The prosecution alleges that Jackson used his stardom and wealth to lure Gavin into his trap; the defense, meanwhile, says that Jackson is being set up by Gavin's family specifically because he is wealthy. As such, says Robert Weisberg, a criminal law professor at Stanford, the Jackson case may be seen as "not just a trial of one of the most famous people on earth," but it "may truly be a trial about the phenomenon of celebrity."

In a sense, each side is asking the jury to weigh the power of Jackson's stardom, and to decide which side -- Jackson's side, or the boy's family's side -- was more willing to trade on that celebrity for gain. Because molestation cases are difficult to prove, Jackson may not be convicted of actually touching Gavin inappropriately, Weisberg says. But Jackson may be found guilty with lesser crimes having to do with his inappropriate behavior, such as giving the boys alcohol or porn. In such a scenario, Jackson's crime would fall into a kind of gray area, and he would really be convicted for "perverting or exploiting his celebrity," Weisberg says. "It wouldn't be that he raped children. The crimes would be somewhat more inchoate and amorphous. It would have to do with the fact that he wields extraordinary power over people, and he would be found guilty of abusing that power."

While there may be a great deal at stake in this case, it's not clear the version we are watching on TV is conveying what's important. Indeed, when you look at how the Jackson case plays on TV, it's not unusual to think back on the time of O.J. Simpson with no small bit of nostalgia.

It's true that you may have considered it inconsequential at the time, but that case, on reflection, can be called significant. The O.J. Simpson trial laid bare the deep racial divisions in our society. Through it, we learned of the pervasiveness of police misconduct, about jury nullification, the limitations of DNA evidence, deficiencies in domestic violence law, and the perils of televising court cases. The case inspired some positive changes in the law, but it also shook our faith in the courts.

"It was a disaster for the American perception of criminal justice," says Weisberg. "It fed into all the Archie Bunker myths of how the criminal justice system works -- that money enables you to win false acquittals, that everybody lies, and that people get away literally with murder."

Still, coverage of the Simpson case largely stuck to the facts in the courtroom. Today, the coverage of cases like Jackson's offer opinion over fact, constant shouting, as the New Republic's Jason Zengerle recently pointed out in a fine dissection of the disaster that is TV coverage of courtroom news.

These days, "viewers can watch legal pundits yell at one another as they debate guilt and innocence, life and death, on any number of programs," Zengerle writes. Mark Geragos, who defended Scott Peterson and initially represented Jackson as well, tells Zengerle that "Court TV has taken what's happened in the political arena with Fox News and extended that to the legal arena ... It's the Fox-ification of the legal arena. And it's a significant problem."

With the Jackson case, coverage has slipped even more, making it now nearly impossible to determine anything important about the case from a nightly cable show.

During the Simpson case, "you could have analysts like myself sit up and talk and discourse on race, on domestic abuse, the issues of interracial marriage," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a cultural commentator who wrote a book on the trial and often appeared on CNN during that case. "It was almost an educational forum."

Hutchinson still frequently goes on TV to discuss legal cases -- I spoke to him just after he'd done Bill O'Reilly -- but he says that the whole experience is dumbed down these days, especially when it comes to Jackson. "Do you hear any of the very similar issues routinely raised in the media? Are there child-abuse experts, criminal justice experts on these talk shows? They can easily do the same thing they did with O.J. But the decision was made to treat this as a celebrity peep show. It's titillation driven, not information driven."

In addition to talking about child molestation, Hutchinson says that he would like to discuss the differences in the racial dynamics between this case and O.J. Simpson's. However, given Jackson's odd racial status, observers on race and law have to admit they're perplexed.

Christopher Bracey, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who is an expert on how racial questions affect the law, remembers that Simpson had an ambiguous racial status at the time of his trial; he'd married outside his race and was considered at the very least not quite concerned about African-Americans. But blacks embraced him during his case. Now, "with Jackson, it's like O.J. multiplied by 10," Bracey says. "He's in racial and cultural exile."

Still, Bracey says he found it interesting that "when the initial allegations were raised, the Nation of Islam came to his side. It's very interesting how people make a move to their perceived power base, and how Jackson's perceived power base was African-Americans."

Early in March, before many of the most important witnesses had taken the stand, the Gallup Organization ran a survey of Americans' attitudes toward Jackson. It found that 75 percent of whites believe the charges against Jackson are true, compared with only 51 percent of blacks.

But both Bracey and Hutchinson suggest that such disparities won't persist after the verdict is handed down. If Jackson is found guilty, blacks aren't going to rally around him, as they did around O.J. Simpson. That's simply because many African-Americans sensed that what they believed happened to Simpson -- that he was framed by corrupt cops -- could realistically happen to any one of them. What's happening to Jackson doesn't carry the same sense of victimization.

"There's been a decade of suspicions about him," Hutchinson says. "We know about the settlement. We know he's had these young boys in his bed -- the suspicions are so deep, the feeling is this guy is tainted. And so blacks will say, 'Why would we want to rally around a child molester?'"

Significantly, the judge in the case has run a tight ship, treating Jackson as fairly as any other defendant. Here's Michael Jackson, one of the most famous, most wealthy people in the world, getting a fair trial and being treated like everyone else, a lesson at odds with what happened to Simpson. "Ever since O.J. Simpson, when rich people go on trial, I think the public wonders if the same standard will be applied to them," says Jim Hammer, a former San Francisco prosecutor and frequent legal analyst for Fox News. "I think so far, here, the same standard has been applied -- and that sends an important message. In that courtroom you're like any other American."

And really, Hammer says, "I think the fact that there is a trial at all is a victory for the system. In 1993, he subverted justice. It's outrageous that you can buy off a victim with $20 million. Working folks can't do that. It's crazy that in a serious crime like child molestation, all that kept you out of jail was $20 million. So who knows -- maybe these are false allegations, maybe they're true. I don't know. But there is some victory in forcing the rich guy to stand trial like everyone else."

Any day now, Jackson's lawyers will rise to his defense.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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