1 Jul 2010
Michael Jackson: The Making of a Myth - Part 1
|Written by Deborah Ffrench
|Monday, 28 June 2010
One year on, from the shocking events that took place in Los Angeles in the summer of 2009, and the universe of questions Michael Jackson's extraordinary death threw into orbit shows no signs yet of being answered satisfactorily. That Jackson actually died on June 25 is not in question. But it is the manner in which he departed that birthed an epilogue of controversy. Courtesy of TMZ's first truly global scoop, conversely at 14.26 pm as the vitality in Jackson's body flickered and died, the world as we knew it would galvanize into unprecedented hyperlife. AOL would call the ensuing web meltdown a "seminal moment in internet history." Jackson's death would precipitate a virtual news blackout of anything that wasn't Jackson related. From then to now, speculations of the Grisham-type variety about the state of Jackson's health and body to conspiratorial scenarios involving AEG, Sony, Jackson's last advisers, and his doctor - have raged like wildfire across the media.
Los Angeles, in the wake of Jackson's death, as well as coping with the influx of mourners and the world's press, also endured a summer of simmering tension between its bullish City Attorney, Carmen Trutanich, and Tim Leiweke - president of AEG, the sports and entertainment jewel-in-the-crown subsidiary of the Anschutz Company. Long-standing billboard issues, the city's huge debt, and good old-fashioned ego, resulted in public sparring for several months as the two men locked horns over who should foot the bill for Jackson's magnificent Staples Center memorial last July. Simultaneously transmitted live in over 22 countries around the world, news sources recorded the worldwide viewing figures as in excess of 1.3 billion, making it the most watched live television broadcast in history. The run-up to that event saw countless tributes from celebrities, heads of state, politicians, friends, and fans. But there was anger and a repetition of old accusations too.
On Capitol Hill, the day after Jackson died, when Congresswoman Diane E. Watson asked the House of Representatives to observe a minute's silence for Jackson, some members protested by leaving the House floor. Congressman John Yarmuth, would later tell radio pundit John Ziegler that the gesture made him feel "almost nauseated." On the same day, Maureen Orth, past correspondent for Vanity Fair, appeared on MSNBC's Morning Joe and Today and declared Jackson, "a failure as a human being." On June 29, Rush Limbaugh called the media coverage a "horrible disgrace," and on the eve of the July 7 memorial, Congressman Peter King took the time to release a youtube video pronouncing Jackson, "a pervert" and, "a low life." Diane Dimond, a long-time Jackson detractor, responding to the blogs of grieving fans on her website where she had posted an article just days after Jackson died, wrote that she hoped Jackson's death would be "a teaching moment for millions " adding, "the cyclical nature of molestation that causes the victim to grow up and victimize others .the list of what Michael Jackson's life can teach us is long."
The next few months would bring a seemingly endless stream of graphic, brutal revelations. International speculation about the results of the autopsies, the shock discovery of propofol and other narcotics in Jackson's system, the redefining of his death as a homicide, arguments over how fit for This Is It Jackson had been, ever-changing dates for the final burial of Jackson's body, custody of his three children, as well as the fight for executive control of the Estate; all severely polarized a city with a history of igniting easily.
A succession of tributes at the BET's, VMA's, Emmy's, Grammy's and finally the Oscars - albeit briefly, brought some relief from the rancour. But with the awards season over, the business of determining what and who killed Jackson, returned to the fore when Murray turned himself in to be formally charged in Febuary this year with involuntary manslaughter. The following month, Joe Jackson and his attorney-on-call, Brian Oxman, launched public opening shots against Murray in a 13-page legal document filed at the Los Angeles County Superior Court. Effectively serving notice to Murray's lawyers of their intention to pursue a wrongful death civil suit against their client, Chernoff and his team can hardly have been surprised since a civil suit so often follows or parallels a criminal one.
Headlines that 'Michael could have been saved 'followed in the wake of Oxman's and Joe Jackson accusing Murray of not acting quickly enough or, more damagingly, disclosing vital information to staff at the UCLA Medical center Jackson was taken to. Both Oxman and Joe Jackson claimed that when Jackson arrived at UCLA, staff had to use "aggressive resuscitation" to establish a pulse and a heartbeat, which eventually stopped. In the lead up to Murray's trial - if that actually happens, it is inevitable details such as these will take center stage in the media's coverage. What is also certain, is that this coverage will focus almost exclusively on the most sensational aspects of Jackson's alleged drug dependency for maximum effect and maximum ratings.
In the eye of this storm, the fate of Doctor Murray, a man who increasingly bears the look of someone completely bewildered as to how he arrived at his infamy, seems almost surreal. While the media have consistently placed Murray sharply front and center of the investigation into his death, they have so far declined any public self-reflection on the part they arguably played in creating - or at least, exacerbating the conditions that brought Jackson within touching distance of a fatal tragedy.
This is not a defence of where Murray stands along the line of causality that led to the death of Jackson. Involuntary manslaughter, a paradoxically catch-all yet legally tight charge with barely punitive consequences for someone found guilty of it, needs only the component of reckless judgement to be present, and Murray looks likely to qualify. But the focus by the media - and indeed many of the fans, on Murray's still-to-be-determined culpability, is in reality, also limited. While not exactly the 'fall guy' his defense team have cast him as, the truth is, Murray, who had only been in his ex-employer's life for three years before Jackson died - is not only the only player in this story.
Famously reticent, Jackson - after the success of Off The Wall in 1979 and the phenomenon of Thriller in1982 - had long ago retreated behind carefully constructed PR statements and controlled press calls in an attempt to limit an already chaffing over-exposure. Already no stranger to the knife, in 1979, Jackson had rhinoplasty surgery to remedy damage sustained during a dance session. Later, he would have surgery to restore cohesion to his scalp after the serious burn injuries he suffered while filming a 1984 PepsiCo commercial. By the late 80's, while he was still relatively comparable to 'little Michael' from his Motown days with his brothers, the media were still a relatively neutral presence in Jackson's life. Fantastic tales of 'wacko's' exotic lifestyle at Neverland played in the public gallery as evidence of a bizzare but adorable boy/child.
This neutrality eroded, as Jackson's physicality changed more radically and his perceived 'oddness' began to attract much more criticism and attention in the intervening years between his highly successful Bad tour and the beginning of his promotional chores to support the release of his Dangerous album in 1991. For years, beyond reach of curious onlookers to the magic kingdom he seemed to inhabit, it would, be the momentous events of 1993 that would shatter forever the fragile stand-off that existed between Jackson and the press.
Attempting to scope an overview of the most turbulent and devastating years of Jackson's life is almost impossible for one reason. So much of the truly important information was not covered by the journalists and networks paid to do just that. Most Americans remain unaware to this day that the 'facts' they were presented with in both 1993 or 2003/5, bore no resemblance to the truth of what was actually behind the headlines and ubiquitous Jackson media coverage. The ambivalence that many people have about Jackson's legacy hinges on these omissions, and it for that reason that retracing the steps of the media-led immolation of Jackson's name and reputation remains an important task.
It would of course be both ridiculous and naïve to have expected journalists, editors, and TV networks to have ignored the commercial news 'value' of the accusations Jackson faced from 1993 onwards. But in charting the negative narrative pursued by an entire industry, it can be clearly seen that the media's behavior as a whole - and that of certain individuals within it, went way beyond acceptable standards for any profession. The highly effective 'monsterdom' of Michael Jackson was both deliberate and systematic. But in examining its construction, it is possible we may come to understand how a myth was built.
Most people think they know Jackson's life-story:
Boy accuses Jackson in 1993, Jackson goes missing, Jackson cries on TV, Jackson pays boy off. Jackson gets weirder and whiter, dangles baby off balcony, appears in a documentary with disastrous results, stands trial in 2005 - then gets off because he's a celebrity.
Except that behind these captured media moments lies a much more complex story. A human story.
In relation to 1993: The context of the ferocious custody battle between Jordan Chandler's parents, the use of a controversial drug to extract an accusation from a child, overwhelming evidence to suggest Jordan's father, Evan Chandler, planned and managed to extort Jackson aided by unscrupulous lawyers manipulating the no-win situation of a molestation accusation, and the real reasons why the financial settlement was paid, were given little to no meaningful attention by the media.
Once lit, the biggest story of the early 90's was fanned into a fire by specific media outlets, tabloid brokers, and television journalists using compromised sources - all of which obscured crucial facts from the American public. The reasons are obvious enough.
An industry that needs a fast turnover of fresh news to shift copy and attract audiences is not motivated to 'slow' a news story down. The speed at which a story develops creates its own momentum, regenerating itself in the process. For headlines to have their day, something has to give - and in 1993, it was Michael Jackson.
In the last two decades, the advent of satellite news gathering (SNG) changed the face of the television news industry. Satellite news vehicles could drive to the scene of major stories anywhere and transmit on-site. When the allegations against Jackson first broke on a local LA news channel, few could have guessed that Jackson, at the time a much loved artist and known advocate of childrens' welfare, would so quickly become 'first blood' for the radical new era of 24-hour 'rolling' news reporting.
For America, the first hint of the media saturation that was to come began on August 23, 1993. KNBC-TV, broke the news that Neverland had been raided in its early evening news slot.They had been tipped off the day before by Don Ray, a freelance reporter living in Burbank at the time, after he himself had been called by a source in the early hours the day before. Ray, describing the media tsunami that followed said he, " watched this story go away like a freight train." Indeed it did.
The Jackson coverage would make the hot story 'de jour' - the revelations of Heidi 'Hollywood Madam' Fleiss's black book - pale in comparison. In her 1994 article 'Was Michael Jackson Framed: The untold story' journalist Mary A. Fischer wrote, " within 24 hours, Jackson was the lead story on seventy-three TV news broadcasts in the Los Angeles area alone and was on the front page of every British newspaper."
One of those front pages belonged to Caroline Graham, back then a journalist at the Rupert Murdoch owned British tabloid, The Sun. After an early tip-off, Graham, convinced her editor to hold the front page. The Sun's morning edition ran with 'Jacko Child Abuse Probe ' as its headline story on August 23. The rest of Fleet Street jumped on the scandal a day later.
The pace of events would avalanche, however, as a direct result of the leak of a confidential document to an American TV reporter at Hard Copy - a syndicated tabloid news television show, and its sale within hours to Splash News Service, an LA based agency that operated as a de facto 'clearing house' for tabloid news stories.
A go-between for the anonymous source of the leak met Hard Copy reporter Diane Dimond and her producer Steve Doran, in the early evening of August 23 at an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica. They would leave that meeting with an illegally obtained copy of a report detailing the accusations made by Jordan Chandler and his father Evan Chandler (now deceased), in an interview with the LA Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS). Hard Copy insisted it did not pay for a copy.
Aware of the impending leak, Jackson's security adviser at the time, Anthony Pellicano, in an attempt to beat the press at their own game, held a press conference on August 24. Confirming the investigation was over child abuse claims, Pellicano's disclosure sent seismic ripples through an already bated media.
The reaction to Pellicano's confirmation amongst the media - barely controlled hysteria.
At a time when the police were officially "not disclosing " any information, the threat of the DCFS leak had already claimed its first consequence. It would compel Pellicano to pre-empt the leak, thus revealing the nature of a police investigation that had barely begun to gather evidence. Journalist, Allan Hall, then based at The Mirror - a British tabloid, recalls that at the time, " you had a sense that people were flying in from all over the world." Such was the media appetite for Jackson news that within 48 hours literally hundreds of journalists descended on the City of Angels.
The explosion in ratings across the media that the release of descriptions of graphic, unproven allegations against Jackson generated, would only make the TV networks and editors more willing to pay for information from compromised sources and tabloid brokers. This practice would directly affect the direction and substance of the criminal investigation against Jackson. It would also have a direct bearing on the pressure felt by Jackson and his lawyers when the civil suit was filed in September 1993.
The decision by TV executives, producers, newspaper editors and reporters to use an illegally obtained document to broadcast incendiary accusations to the public, represents the critical point at which the media essentially 'entered' the state's investigation. Nothing had been established, no charges had been made. But yet headlines went around the world linking Jackson's name to something that even the suggestion of - destroys.
On August 25, Dimond, with an overtly 'he's guilty' slant, told an audience of approximately 6.1 million (Nielsen figures), that the report Hard Copy had " exclusively "obtained was " extremely graphic and detailed.right down to the sexual act." Splash, busy fielding offers for copies from LA to Tel Aviv at $750 a time, ensured that the next day every television screen in America tuning in to either NBC, ABC, CNN, would have seen the words written by the social worker who conducted Jordan's interview, " while laying next to each other in bed, Mr Jackson put his hand under [the child's] shorts, " flashing up on their screens.
In those first early days, the real damage to Jackson came not from the police, but from the media roar created by 24-hour rotation of the same allegations, the same pictures, the same soundbites. This roar, would allocate air-time only to the most lurid details of the accusations. The broadcasting of the DCFS report on prime-time television as well as accelerating the pace of the Jackson story, also clearly directed the public to form an opinion based only on an accusation - not proven fact.
The facts were these:
Jordan Chandler, the child at the centre of the allegations, whose family first befriended Jackson in May 1992, categorically denied being molested by Jackson until he was removed from the custody of his mother, June Chandler. Up until August 1993, the only person accusing Jackson of anything, was his father - Evan Chandler.
The relationship between Jordan's divorced parents, already fractious, deteriorated rapidly when Evan's attempts to convince Jackson to buy him a house failed. It was only after this rejection that Evan first raised the issue of molestation. And it was only when Jordan was under the physical control of Evan - a man who would seriously assault his own son in 2006 - that he would then accuse Jackson.
Evan, a dentist, who at one point only narrowly avoided losing his licence after the Board of Dental Examiner's found his work revealed "gross inefficiency " and who aspired to a full time career as a scriptwriter - owed his ex-wife $ 68,000 in child support and had shown little interest in Jordan until he became aware of Jackson's friendship with his son. In 1994, Mary A. Fischer quoted Dave Schwartz, Jordan's step-father, as saying he believed Evan's reasons for insisting Jackson had molested his son were because [Evan] " wants money."
June Chandler, until told by the police in late August '93 that Jackson 'fit the profile of a pedophile,' repeatedly stated that she did not believe Evan's accusations. Her lawyer at the time, Michael Freeman, would tell Frontline in November 1993 (aired Febuary '94) that June 'changed' her mind when she became afraid she would be prosecuted for parental neglect.
The existence of considerable collateral evidence, in the form of tape recordings Schwartz secretly made of conversations between him and Evan between June and July 1993, as well as eye-witness statements, support the view that it was when Evan engaged the services of Barry Rothman - a Los Angeles lawyer with a savage reputation and code violations from the California State Bar against his name - that Evan actualized his intention to extort Jackson.
On July 11, Jackson's lawyer, Bertram Fields, in an effort to head off the lawsuit he had seen coming when Jackson first told him that Evan was demanding a meeting with him back in June, agreed to Evan and Rothman's demand that Jordan be allowed to stay with Evan for one week.
Jordan would never return to his mother's custody. Crucially, it would be over the course of the next few weeks following this transfer of custody that Jordan would accuse Jackson in the presence of a third party.
From July 12 through to August, documental evidence suggests that procedural steps were put in place by Rothman to secure Evan's custody of Jordan, and to ensure that continued.
On June 15, Rothman presented a hypothetical abuse scenario to Mathias Abrams, a psychiatrist who, without meeting either Evan or Jordan, supplied Rothman with a written statement that, " events as presented above provide the basis for the conclusion that reasonable suspicion would exist that sexual abuse may have occurred." If evidence were needed of premeditation by Evan Chandler and Rothman to allege molestation, to many this would be it.
The use of the drug Sodium Amytal on Jordan during 'necessary' dental work by Evan and an attendant anesthesiologist, Mark Torbiner, would be the turning point in these events. Jordan would tell child pyschologist Richard Gardner (now deceased) from the Los Angeles Sexally Exploited Child Unit that when he "woke up," he remembered being asked if "anything had ever happened between [him] and Michael." Jordan, still under the influence of the drug, would reply that it had. Evan Chandler would later state that this was the first time Jordan confessed that Jackson had touched his penis.
From August 4 to August 16, Evan and Rothman initiated the negotiations with Pellicano.Their demand:
$ 20 million from Jackson. In those meetings, it was understood that this money would prevent Evan from making his accusations about Jackson public. These negotiations had irretrievably broken down by August 13.
On August 16, June Chandler, realizing Evan intended to keep her from her son indefinitely, authorized her attorney, Freeman, to apply to the court for the return of Jordan to her custody. Freeman informed Rothman that this order would be applied for the next morning. Rothman immediately informed his client, Evan.
The next day, August 17, Evan took his son Jordan to the psychiatrist Mathias Abrams that Rothman had already primed for exactly this turn of events. Jordan repeated the molestation story. Mathis, required by California law to report such as accusation did so, as Evan and Rothman would have known he would.
The dangers inherent in the use of Sodium Amytal are well documented. Suffice it to say, no other dentists or psychiatrists at the time in 1993 - or indeed now, recommend its use on a child, in the course of dentistry, or as an adequate basis on which any accusation made while 'under' such a drug should ever be upheld as legally or ethically authentic.
Evan, himself, corroborated that he sanctioned the administering of the drug when he was interviewed in 1994 by a reporter from LA's KCBS-TV on May 3, 1994. The news report quoted Evan confirming that he had, " used the drug on his son, but the dentist claimed he did so only to pull his son's tooth and that while under the drug's influence, the boy came out with allegations. "
Despite, unsubstantiated claims circulating on the internet that investigative journalist, Mary A. Fischer, no longer stands by her 1994 GQ article on Jackson, this is not the case. As recently as November 25, 2005, when Jackson had already been acquitted several months before, Fischer restated and updated her 1994 findings about Evan's use of Sodium Amytal on his son. In an interview with Greta Van Sustren on Fox News's - On The Record, Fischer said,
"It's a powerful psychiatric drug which, when under the influence of, a person is highly suggestible. And that drug was given to the boy by the father of the boy and the father's friend who was a dental anesthesiologist. The dental anesthesiologist gave the boy the drug in a dentist's office." Fischer also reconfirmed that in 1993, "there was no corroborating evidence. As there often is in these cases of alleged child molestation, it's easy for someone to make an accusation, but it's very hard to defend against it."
But perhaps the single most important detail that reveals extortion was at the heart of 1993, is the most obvious one. Before the allegations went public, and while the protracted negotiations for a financial settlement that Evan initiated were still progressing, the easiest thing for Jackson to have done would have been to simply pay Evan what he wanted. Jackson did not do this.
Fischer, speaking on a PBS documentary in 1994 observed, "They couldn't reach any kind of mutual agreement, but had they been able to, the interesting thing about it [is], this case would have never gone beyond this room."
This simple fact was apparently lost on the journalists, networks, TV pundits, and general public in 1993, who did not challenge the fact that in an apparently criminal situation where he suspected that his son had been molested, Evan Chandler sought the advice of a notoriously ruthless civil lawyer instead of simply going to the police.
Given that Anthony Pellicano widely distributed the secret recordings of Evan and Schwartz's converstions to the press and CBS, who rushed out the first exclusive coverage of the tapes, a snapshot of the headlines surfacing just days after the allegations first broke, reveals where the media intended to stand on the subject of Jackson's innocence.
'Peter Pan or Pervert?' asked both the New York Post and The Sun in Britain, within days of the story breaking. 'Michael Jackson: A Curtain Closes' opined one, Britain's The Mirror kept it simple and punned one of Jackson's past hits with 'He's Bad', while The Sun ran with 'Jackson Used Me As A Sex Toy,' and The Washington Post - 'Malice In Wonderland.' Even the serious publications stepped into the fray. Notably Newsweek's 1993 cover, 'Is he Dangerous or Just Off The Wall?' and Time's, 'Michael Jackson: The End of Innocence?' would take the debate beyond just the tabloids' walls.
Despite the media's efforts though; a little over seven days after the allegations had broken, and a concerted campaign of damage-control consisting of press conferences called by Pellicano showcasing Wade Robson and Brett Barnes as examples of Jackson's 'healthy' relationships with children, expressions of unity from Jackson's own family, and playbacks of Evan's voice threatening, "it will be a massacre if I don't get what I want " to assembled press scrums - had resulted in a degree of softening towards Jackson in the public's mind.
Opinion polls at the time compiled by A Current Affair, Entertainment Weekly and The National Enquirer, suggested well over 70 % of Michael's target audience, teens and females did not believe the allegations. This percentage was considerably higher amongst African- Americans.
Just when the extortion component of the story was beginning to emerge as a viable reason for the allegations, the media found a way to reignite a story that was in danger of resolving itself. In the absence of any personal statement from Jackson, the momentary 'gain' generated by the release of the tapes, would be shortlived.
Billed at the time as 'explosive new revelations,' the first of these 'witnesses' would be Stella and Phillipe Lemarque, former chefs at Neverland. Using Hollywood investigator and well known tabloid broker, Paul Baressi (known to occasionally use firearms during fee negotiations,) the Lemarques attempted to sell their story that they had seen Jackson 'abusing' the child actor Macaulay Culkin to anyone waving a checkbook. Their story was eventually sold first to The Mirror for an unspecified amount, headlining their exclusive as 'Jacko's New Home Slur,' and subsequently in The globe for $15,000 who ran with 'Peter Pan or Pervert: We caught Jackson Abusing Child Star.'
Lemarque, who alleged that Jackson's technique was to 'get' children so overstimulated that they barely noticed what Jackson was doing to them, when subsequently cross-examined in 2005 by Jackson's lead lawyer, Thomas Meseareau, would admit that Barresi had advised him that saying Jackson's hand was inside Culkin's shorts instead of outside, would significantly raise the asking price they could sell their story for. Indeed, writer Maureen Orth in her 1994 article 'Nightmare in Neverland,' wrote that Barresi actually showed her two written versions of the Lermarques 'story,' that clearly revealed how the fee affected the content.
In '93, after the Lemarque story broke, Culkin publicly denied he had been molested by Jackson. But the press barely covered it, some even suggesting Culkin's denial was an attempt to 'save face.' In Jackson's 2005 trial, Culkin, who was strangely not called by the prosecution as a witness even though under the prosecution's own 'prior acts' criteria he qualified as one of the 'victims,' insisted on testifying after Mr Lemarque's testimony. Under oath, Culkin adamantly denied any such incident occurred and also described the accusations of molestation against Jackson as " absolutely ridiculous." It has since emerged that in 1997 Lemarque owned and ran a hardcore website called 'Virtual Sin,' which has since folded.
However, back in 1993, without the benefit of hindsight to evaluate the Lemarques's credibilty, their story would add considerable fuel to an already blazing fire. The pressure on Jackson, increased simply because the media were willing to pay the price the Lemarques demanded.
The Lemarques 'revelations' would be swiftly followed by two former housekeepers from the Phillipines - the Quindoys. Three days after the first news of the allegations, ABC would send a reporter to Manila to hear their 'eye-witness' account. And once again, the media would pay for the privilege. Meanwhile, Diane Dimond at Hard Copy was also keen to speak to the Quindoys'. The bidding was about to begin.
The fees asked for by 'witnesses' and paid by the media would come to thousands, so great was the demand and commercial value of 'fresh' news in the Jackson story. As Paul Barresi would tell Frontline in1993 (aired Febuary '94), " someone just has to have a story, a half-truth, and you mix with it with a little venom, then you have a tabloid story. "