The Media, The
Industry And Michael Jackson
By David Walsh
17 March 2005
prosecutions case in the Michael Jackson sexual molestation trial,
now in its third week in Santa Maria, California, appears to have been
seriously damaged by the alleged victims own testimony on March
14. The 15-year-old boy acknowledged under questioning by defense attorney
Thomas Mesereau Jr. that he had told a school official the popular singer
had not molested him.
Under redirect questioning
the following day by District Attorney Thomas Sneddon, Jacksons
accuser testified that he denied the molestation because he wanted to
avoid being teased by classmates. Nonetheless, the boys acknowledgement
of his conversation with the school official raises questions about
his credibility and could affect the district attorneys effort
to convict Jackson on 10 felony counts, for which the singer faces up
to 20 years in prison.
claims that the pop singer sexually molested the boy, then 13, at his
Neverland Ranch in February 2003. The defense argues that the family
of the boy has a history of making dubious accusations in order to obtain
cash, and that the present case arises from another such attempt.
In the first weeks
of the trial, prosecutors placed the accuser, his brother and sister
on the witness stand. The two boys leveled a variety of charges against
the singer: that he encouraged them to drink alcohol, provided them
with sex magazines, and inappropriately touched the older of the two.
The defense revealed inconsistencies in the witnesses accounts
and suggested that they had been coached to lie.
The Jackson trial
has become the latest media extravaganza, given saturation coverage
and endlessly hyped as part of the effort of corporate-controlled news
outlets to coarsen and corrupt public sensibilities. The sordid character
of the trial should come as a surprise to no one. Could a case shaped
by such quintessential and deplorable features of contemporary American
public lifemoney, celebrity and a prurient interest in sexproceed
in any other manner?
This spectacle has
different aspects to it. First, there is the ongoing passion of
Michael Jackson. The singer appeared near collapse last Thursday.
He failed to arrive in court on time, angering the judge, who threatened
to revoke his bail. Jackson was apparently in a hospital emergency room
having his back examined and showed up at the courthouse more than an
hour late in pajama bottoms, slippers and a suit jacket. After seeing
the pop star in this condition, his former spiritual adviser,
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, told a television interviewer he feared the singer
would die before the abuse trial ended.
We do not claim
to know whether Jackson is guilty or innocent of the charges leveled
against him. He is, it goes without saying, a deeply troubled and conflicted
human being, capable of bizarre behavior. So much of his life having
been bound up with popular adulation, it seems likely that whatever
the outcome of the trial, Jackson will emerge severely damaged. One
questions whether he can survive being portrayed as a child molester
and monster. His financial state is also said to be increasingly
Guilty of the molestation
charges or not, Jackson obviously needs psychological help. Whether
the most intensive therapy could ever fully repair the damage that has
resulted from a life spent in Americas limelight, however, is
There is hardly
any social enterprise more unforgiving than American show business.
It has the blood, so to speak, of countless talented individuals on
its hands. The combination of vast and sudden wealth, hero worship from
the public (often tinged with envy and resentment), and relentless commercial
demands is often a fatal one, physically, artistically or both.
metaphor is not entirely inappropriate. The entertainment superstar
is the focus of a good deal of popular desperation, particularly in
the US at the present time, when so many people are emotionally and
intellectually at sea.
Jackson, from a
working class family in Gary, Indiana, is nothing if not conscious of
(and conscientious about) his public. One imagines that he feels the
immense popular longing as a pressure and a demand, and finds it a heavy
cross to bear. He must also sense that adoration, perceiving itself
betrayed by its objects supposed misdeeds, can rapidly turn into
The emotional claims
of the public are more than matched by the relentless financial requirements
of the industry. Nowhere else in the world has the relatively seamless
transformation of the star performer into a machine for the making of
profits been so perfected, and with such devastating results.
This may not, of
course, be fully understood by the artistor, for that matter,
by the entertainment industry executivebut the vampire-like demands
of the media conglomerates inexorably suck the creativity and life out
of the performer. In the end, what the entertainment industry gains,
the artist must lose. And vice versa: insofar as the individual singer
or actor refuses to make his soul fully available for commodification,
he robs the record company or film studio. This is a struggle, often
literally, to the death.
Jackson has had
an entertainment career more exacting and total than most.
A star nearly all his life, he has the music business to thank in large
measure for what he is. As we wrote at the time of his arrest in late
2003, Why should anyone be overly shocked or outraged by Jacksons
physical transformation? He has merely followed the cultures own
arguments, its relentless addiction to the false and unreal, to their
logical, if grotesque, conclusion.
seems bound up with the same factsa life spent in a show business
cocoon, at a certain point surrounded by a gigantic entourage devoted
to fulfilling his every whim. The Peter Pan complex, the
apparently fake marriages, the surrogate mother for his third childeverything
points to a man floundering in a set of conflicting demands. (See
Michael Jacksons tragedy )
Target of the right wing
At the same time,
the Michael Jackson case has its rightful place in Americas peculiar
and stunted official political life. Sneddon, the Santa Barbara County
district attorney, no doubt has a personal ax to grind. After overseeing
the failed effort to convict the singer on similar charges in 1993,
he became the thinly veiled target of one of Jacksons songs. However,
the hostility toward Jackson of a Sneddon, a conservative law-and-order
Republican (once nicknamed Mad Dog), has more to it than
perceived as a liberal icon, has become a useful bête noire of
the ultra-right, one of the human targets against which reactionary
elements attempt to direct some of the disoriented rage washing around
in the American populace. Racism and homophobia lie just beneath the
surface of their attacks. The pornographic right, always on the lookout
for filth, cannot invent punishments too severe for Jacksons alleged
crimes: prison for life, castration, even execution.
The sexual witch-hunters
are obviously fascinated and attracted by what they attempt to persecute.
Here we see Americas Puritan traditions turned inside out. The
Clinton-Lewinsky scandal opened a floodgate of media prurience and obsession
with perversity that has never closed. The thirst in right-wing, proto-fascistic
quarters for the sordid lowdown on personalities they despise, even
if it has to be hyped or invented, is unquenchable.
For its part, the
mainstream media adopts a two-faced policy toward episodes like the
Jackson case. On the one hand, the television networks and newspapers
compete with one another to provide the public with the latest salacious
allegations. Editorialists and op-ed writers, on the other hand, lament
the attention paid to such a case and the fallen moral state of a population
that supposedly cannot get enough of its details.
Whether the population
is fascinated or not, and one feels a certain weariness in regard to
the Jackson affair, it has little choice in the matter. Media-driven
scandals succeed one another like clockwork. Each is turned into the
focus of national attention until a new one comes along and bumps it
If two weeks go
by without a celebrity scandal or a particularly grisly murder case,
the media and its talking heads grow noticeably restive. The Kobe Bryant,
Martha Stewart, Scott Peterson, Robert Blake and Jackson cases tend
to merge into one lengthy, undignified assault on public intelligence
The basic trend
in the American media is toward a vast expansion of yellow journalism,
with its sensationalism and scandal-mongering, even within respectable
outlets. This has deep social causes. The US is a country seething with
social contradictions and tensions, none of which can be discussed openly.
The vast chasm between the elite and the rest of the population must
remain a secret as far as the media is concerned.
And yet the media
establishment is aware of the discontent and restlessness that pervades
so much of American daily life and finds expression most often in violent,
anti-social acts. The task of yellow journalism is to tap
into popular hostility without ever permitting it to become focused
on the underlying social relationships of capitalism. Confused, populist
resentment against overpaid performers and athletes, or even individual
corporate criminals, can be fairly easily manipulated.
There is also a
specific need to divert attention not only from the war in Iraq, with
its casualties and atrocities, but also from the preparations for new
acts of aggression, whether against Syria, Iran or some other target
of US imperialist interests.
legal fate remains unclear. The media, switching its tone from day to
day, is somewhat undecided as to how things should turn out. The singer
may be convicted and branded a sexual predatoran outcome that
would certainly please many media movers and shakers. On the other hand,
the possibility remains that Jackson will be vindicated
and permitted at least a partial heart-warming comeback, in which case
we will be reminded that never for a day did the singer cease to be
one of Americas pop culture icons.
Either way, the
media circus will pack up and move on to its next venue, unconcerned
about the mess it has left behind.